NATO racing to wrap up campaign
BRUSSELS - With NATO’s bombing of Libya now in its sixth month, a new sense of urgency is gripping the alliance as two crucial deadlines loom next month.
After months of combat stalemate, the insurgents have made dramatic gains in recent weeks against Moammar Khadafy’s forces and have encircled Tripoli. The rapid advance offers NATO the chance to bring to a conclusion a campaign that has drawn increasing international criticism and caused serious rifts within the alliance.
NATO jets have flown nearly 20,000 sorties in the past month, including about 7,500 strike attacks.
Alliance officials deny there has been a fundamental shift in tactics in recent days to provide close air support to the advancing rebels, saying they continue to be focused on the protection of civilian populations as mandated by a UN Security Council resolution.
But they acknowledge that in response to new developments, alliance bombers are pummeling Khadafy’s troops holding defensive positions around government-held towns and villages, under attack from the advancing rebel forces.
Italy’s defense minister, Ignazio La Russa, defended NATO’s operations, saying its mission is to protect civilians. “Thus all its targets are military targets,’’ La Russa told Sky TG24 TV.
Alliance military planners are racing against a deadline next month, when member states must vote on a second three-month extension of the mission. Approval for an extension may prove problematic, since support for the bombing campaign has eroded among allies, who say it detracts resources from NATO’s main mission, the 10-year war in Afghanistan.
Also in September, the UN General Assembly is due to debate the airstrikes, with many members critical of NATO for overstepping the original UN mandate in March which UN authorized a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians caught up in the civil unrest.
A NATO official said that early in the campaign NATO airstrikes focused on preventing Khadafy’s troops from reoccupying rebel-held towns. Such attacks on regime forces destroyed hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, and guns.
But within a few weeks, Khadafy’s soldiers switched tactics, abandoning their vulnerable heavy weaponry in favor of civilian trucks armed with machine guns or recoilless rifles, which proved difficult to identify and destroy from the air.
“Now the rebel offensive has put them on the defensive, and they are again bringing out their tanks and heavy artillery,’’ said the official, who could not be named under standing rules.
“This is why we’ve been attacking them even when they are trying to beat back rebel advances,’’ he said.
But analysts counter that NATO’s claims of simply protecting civilians strains credulity, saying the direct tactical air support to the rebel forces is enabling their battlefield victories.