EU wary on Libya no-fly zone, despite Arab backing

BRUSSELS Sun Mar 13, 2011 9:02am EDT

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union and NATO said their conditions had not yet been met for imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, the day after Arab countries called for the warplanes of Muammar Gaddafi to be pinned down.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said the League, meeting in Cairo on Saturday, had decided that "serious crimes and great violations" committed by Gaddafi's government against his people had stripped it of legitimacy. [nLDE72B01K]

Officials from the EU and NATO said that Arab support was just one of three conditions that must be met before they could unleash a military assault to protect rebel-held cities from Gaddafi's air force.

The other two conditions, agreed by EU leaders on Friday, are proof that their help is needed and a "clear legal basis" -- widely understood to mean a resolution for action from the U.N. Security Council.

"We have started what I would describe as prudent careful planning for all options," said the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who will meet the Arab League on Sunday.

A NATO official said: "Regional support is one of the three conditions. For us the three conditions have not changed, and we do not have a U.N. mandate."

"There needs to be demonstrable need -- that NATO can add value to the efforts of the international community through its capabilities and structures -- a clear legal basis, which means a U.N. mandate, and clear regional support."

But events on the ground were moving faster than diplomacy. While the EU and Washington hesitate, Gaddafi has marshalled his forces to defy a tide of reform. [nLDE72C00H]

Rebels in the east of Libya said on Sunday the front line had been pushed back to the rebel-held oil town of Brega, some 220 km (137 miles) south of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

The rebels, armed mostly with light machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades, are outgunned by Gaddafi's forces using tanks and aircraft.

Diplomats in New York said a U.N. Security Council meeting at the weekend was unlikely.

If the Council does meet to discuss a Libyan no-fly zone, it is far from clear whether it would pass a resolution as veto holders Russia and China have both publicly opposed the idea.

France and Britain have pushed for tough action against Gaddafi, but Germany and many other EU governments are wary.

(Writing by Pete Harrison, additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, edited by Richard Meares)

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