Deal set for NATO to lead Libya ‘no-fly ’ mission

Allies still split over attacks on ground forces

Rebel fighters in Libya took cover during a shelling along a road near the strategic city of Ajdabiya yesterday. Rebel fighters in Libya took cover during a shelling along a road near the strategic city of Ajdabiya yesterday. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
By Elisabeth Bumiller and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / March 25, 2011

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WASHINGTON — NATO will assume leadership from the United States of patrolling the skies over Libya, but the military alliance remains divided over who will command aggressive coalition airstrikes on Moammar Khadafy’s ground troops, NATO and US officials said yesterday.

After a day of confusion and conflicting reports out of NATO headquarters in Brussels, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in Washington late yesterday that NATO had agreed to lead the allies in maintaining the no-fly zone. Effectively, that means that planes from NATO countries will fly missions over Libya with little fear of being shot down because Tomahawk missiles, most of them American, largely destroyed Khadafy’s air defenses and air force last weekend.

But NATO balked at assuming responsibility, at least for now, for what military officials call the “no-drive zone,’’ which would entail bombing Khadafy’s ground forces, tanks, and artillery that are massing outside crucial Libyan cities, and doing so without inflicting casualties on civilians.

Late last night a senior Obama administration official maintained that NATO had agreed to assume responsibility for the no-fly and “no-drive’’ zones but said the details remained to be worked out. The official’s statements appeared to contradict those of the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

A NATO official said that two member nations, Germany and Turkey, objected to NATO participating in strikes that they consider beyond the mandate of the UN security resolution that authorized the military action in Libya.

The announcement of at least a partial handoff of responsibility to NATO came only five days after the conflict started and reflected the intense pressure on President Obama to deliver on his promise that the United States would step back “within days, not weeks’’ from command of the effort.

Clinton, in her comments last night, said the United States was already cutting back its role: “As expected, we are already seeing a significant reduction in the number of US planes.’’

At the Pentagon earlier yesterday, Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, the director of the joint staff, said that US fighter jets will continue bombing Libya and that US surveillance planes will provide reconnaissance even after NATO, in partnership with other coalition members, assumes leadership of the coalition. He also said the United States will provide airborne refueling tankers for coalition warplanes, as well as other logistical support.

As the United States and its European allies tried to work out a coherent agreement for control of the war, the allies continued to pound Libyan ground forces, tanks, and artillery outside three key cities — Misurata, Ajdabiya, and Zintan. Gortney said the airstrikes were aimed at cutting off the communications and supply lines of the Libyan forces. The coalition was not bombing inside the cities to avoid inflicting civilian casualties, he said.

Gortney said the coalition would continue to attack Libyan ground forces as long as they threatened the lives of civilians. He said the United States and its allies had repeatedly told the Libyan forces to cease and desist — he did not say whether the communications were by radio, leaflets, or other means — and that they had been ignored.

“Our message to regime troops is simple: Stop fighting, stop killing your own people, stop obeying the orders of Colonel Khadafy,’’ Gortney said. “To the degree that you defy these demands, we will continue to hit you and make it more difficult for you to keep going.’’

It appeared that the barrage of coalition airstrikes — the Pentagon said there had been 49 strikes on Libyan targets yesterday — had begun to shift momentum from forces loyal to Khadafy to rebels opposing him.

In Misurata, rebels said they were feeling reinvigorated by a second night of airstrikes against the Khadafy forces that have besieged them. The rebels said that they continued to battle a handful of Khadafy gunmen in the city but that the armored units and artillery surrounding the city appeared to have pulled back, their supply and communication lines cut off by the airstrikes.

Earlier yesterday, a French fighter jet fired on a Libyan warplane that had been detected by reconnaissance aircraft flying above the embattled city of Misurata, the French Defense Ministry said in a statement. The plane was hit by a missile shortly after landing at a nearby military airbase, the Defense Ministry said.

Clinton said that a group supported by the Agency for International Development would soon be able to provide humanitarian relief to Libyan civilians, but she gave no details. top stories on Twitter

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