Qatar joins in flights to enforce Libya no-fly zone
Becomes 1st Arab country to take part in operation
TRIPOLI, Libya — Fellow Arab and African nations raised the international pressure yesterday on Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy, with tiny Qatar flying the Arab world’s first combat missions over his country and the African Union imploring him to move toward democratic elections.
The military operation against Khadafy, which yesterday included airstrikes by British and French jets, remains a US-led operation, though NATO was preparing to assume at least some command and control responsibility within days.
A Libyan government delegation meeting in Ethiopia with African leaders — but not the rebels seeking Khadafy’s ouster — said he is ready to talk with his opponents and accept political reform, possibly including elections. But the delegation also said Libya is committed to a cease-fire that Khadafy’s forces have flouted since the government announced it, and blamed the violence on “extremists’’ and foreign intervention.
NATO named Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard to lead its Libyan operation, finalizing what it hopes will be a unified command to oversee military action against the North African nation.
Envoys from NATO’s 28 member countries agreed late Thursday to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. By Monday, the alliance expects to start doing so, as well as coordinating naval patrols in the Mediterranean to enforce the UN arms embargo against Khadafy’s forces. With further approval expected tomorrow, NATO will take over the responsibility for bombing Khadafy’s military to protect civilians from attack.
A NATO official said yesterday that NATO now hopes to launch both operations simultaneously within a couple of days, avoiding the need for dual commands — NATO for the no-fly zone and the United States for the airstrikes. The official requested anonymity because of regulations about speaking to the media.
A Qatari fighter jet flew the country’s first sortie alongside a French jet yesterday to enforce the no-fly zone, the first non-Western military flight in support of the operation.
“Having our first Arab nation join and start flying with us emphasizes that the world wants the innocent Libyan people protected from the atrocities perpetrated by pro-regime forces,’’ US Air Forces Africa Commander Major General Margaret Woodward said.
Aside from the United Arab Emirates, which pledged 12 warplanes, the international effort to protect Khadafy’s opponents has no other countries from the Arab League, a 22-member group that was among the driving forces behind the UN Security Council decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The United States has provided millions of dollars in equipment to many of the league’s countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
A Health Ministry official said 114 Libyans have died in the international airstrikes, but he did not provide a breakdown of soldiers and civilians.
Army General Carter Ham said late Thursday that although he was not sure whether civilians died in airstrikes, “we have been very, very precise and discriminate in our targeting.’’ British Foreign Secretary William Hague went further, saying there have been “no confirmed civilian casualties’’ from airstrikes.
The UN Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Khadafy launched attacks against antigovernment protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have sapped the strength of Khadafy’s forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at a stalemate in key cities.
The rebels claimed late yesterday that they had taken the eastern gates of Ajdabiya, although that could not be independently confirmed.
Earlier yesterday, British and French warplanes hit near Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition’s eastern stronghold, and the western city of Misurata have especially suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to lift Khadafy’s siege.
A Libyan delegation met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with five African heads of state to discuss a solution to the crisis. Rebels, who were not at the Ethiopia meeting, demand Khadafy’s ouster and say they will not negotiate with him.
African Union commission chairman Jean Ping said the AU favors a transition period in Libya that would lead to democratic elections. The statement is the strongest to come out of the AU since the Libya crisis began, and could be seen as a strong rebuke to Khadafy, who has long been well regarded by the continental body.