NATO and UK hope for more Libya strike aircraft

BERLIN Fri Apr 15, 2011 5:57pm EDT

BERLIN (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Britain voiced optimism on Friday that NATO allies would supply more combat planes for the Libyan mission, but Italy ruled out ordering its planes to open fire.

Britain and France are urging other NATO allies to provide more planes capable of hitting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's ground forces after Washington cut back its role in the operation and passed command onto NATO on March 31.

"We have got indications that nations will deliver what is needed ... I'm hopeful that we will get the necessary assets in the very near future," Rasmussen told a news conference at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin.

The leaders of France, Britain and the United States published a jointly-written newspaper article on Friday vowing to keep up their military campaign until Gaddafi leaves power. Some countries, such as Russia, say that goes beyond the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the campaign.

Libyan rebels have pleaded for more air strikes, saying they face a massacre from government artillery barrages in the besieged city of Misrata.

The United States and European NATO allies have so far rebuffed French and British calls to contribute more actively.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who has been lobbying other NATO allies to provide more strike aircraft, also said after talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that he was hopeful more strike assets would be made available.

Asked if Britain might be prepared to contribute more combat aircraft if other allies did not step forward, Hague said: "We'll always keep that under review but ... as of today this question doesn't arise."

HELPING THE REBELS

Clinton said NATO allies were searching for ways to provide funds to Libya's rebels and looking into how the rebels could sell oil from territory under their control.

"The opposition needs a lot of assistance, on the organizational side, on the humanitarian side, and on the military side," Clinton told reporters in Berlin.

"There have been a number of discussions about how to best provide that assistance ... who's willing to do what. We're also searching for ways to provide funding to the opposition.

"In addition to looking at how we can free up assets that could be used by the opposition, we're also looking at how the opposition could sell oil from sites that are under their control," she said.

Libyan rebels say they have been able to export only a small amount of crude oil with the help of OPEC member Qatar but that they need international help to continue overseas shipments.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said France and Britain wanted to extend air strikes to logistics and decision centres of Gaddafi's army.

Italy, seen as a key candidate to increase NATO firepower but which is also the former colonial power in Libya, ruled out ordering its aircraft to open fire.

Rome has made air bases available for NATO forces and has contributed eight aircraft to the mission but only for reconnaissance and monitoring.

"The current line being followed by Italy is the right one and we are not thinking about changing our contribution to the military operations in Libya," Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told reporters in Rome.

Russia used the meeting with NATO in Berlin to spell out its concerns that Western governments had overstepped the mandate of a United Nations resolution authorizing a Libya no-fly zone.

"Today we see actions that in many cases go beyond the framework set by the Security Council ... We talked openly about it today with our (NATO) partners," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news briefing.

"We think it is extremely important not to support the moves in favor of using an excessive military force in order to resolve problems in Libya or any other country in the region."

Russia abstained but did not veto the U.N. Security Council resolution last month authorizing force to protect civilians.

NATO officials say the alliance is short of about 10 aircraft for air strikes. A French official named Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden as countries that could do more.

On Thursday, Spain said it had no plan to join the seven of the 28 NATO states that have been involved in ground strikes.

Canada will not decide whether to contribute more fighter jets to NATO operations over Libya until after a May 2 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Friday.

Canada has six fighter jets in the region and Harper said he wanted legislators to have a say over any further deployment. The Canadian parliament does not sit during an election.