French government says Libya operation to start soon

PARIS Fri Mar 18, 2011 6:20am EDT

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PARIS (Reuters) - France could start military operations against Libya in a matter of hours following the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing such action, government spokesman Francois Baroin said on Friday.

President Nicolas Sarkozy met his defense minister, prime minister and armed forces chief and was expected to seek support for his plan to host talks as early as Saturday between senior representatives of the European Union, African Union and Arab League.

"The French, who led the calls (for action), will of course be consistent with military intervention," Baroin told RTL radio. "The strikes will take place soon."

Asked what form operations would take, he said France would participate in operations to aid the rebel uprising and there would not be an occupation of the North African oil producer.

Defense experts say France and Britain could jointly launch a swift initial operation in the hours ahead in the form of an attack on Gaddafi's air force. The implementation of a no-fly zone or coordination with other nations required more planning.

"To monitor Libyan skies, in other words be there permanently, is more complicated, but destroying the Libyan air force could take a couple of days," said Jean-Dominique Merchet, author of French blog "Secret Defence."

The U.N. Security Council authorized late on Thursday a no-fly zone over Libya and military strikes to curb the advance of Muammar Gaddafi's forces, hours after the Libyan leader threatened to storm the rebel bastion of Benghazi.

French diplomatic sources have said that Britain, possibly the United States and one or more Arab states could join the operation, and cooperation would be fleshed out at the meeting Sarkozy hopes to host this weekend.

(Reporting by Thierry Leveque, Leigh Thomas, John Irish and Catherine Bremer, editing by Tim Pearce)

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