Arming rebels doesn't violate U.N. sanctions: France

NEW YORK Wed Jun 29, 2011 6:20pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - France's decision to airlift weapons to Libyan rebels does not violate the U.N. arms embargo imposed on Libya in February, French Ambassador to the United Nations Gerard Araud said on Wednesday.

"We decided to provide self-defensive weapons to the civilian populations because we consider that these populations were under threat," Araud told reporters.

France said earlier on Wednesday that it dropped weapons to Libya's rebels this month, the first time that a NATO country bombing Libya has openly acknowledged arming rebels seeking to topple Muammar Gaddafi.

Paragraphs 9 and 10 of U.N. Security Council resolution 1970 from February imposed a comprehensive arms embargo on Libya. But resolution 1973, which was adopted in March and authorized military action against Libya, included language that some countries argue created a loophole in the embargo.

"In exceptional circumstances, we can not implement paragraph 9 when it's for protecting civilians," Araud said.

Resolution 1973 authorized U.N. member states "to take all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya. It also adds "notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970" -- referring to the arms embargo.

U.S. and European officials have argued that the word "notwithstanding" is a loophole that could allow them to arm the rebels in the interest of protecting civilians. Araud made clear Paris subscribed to that view.

Council diplomats say that Russia, China and India, however, are among the council members who disagree with the idea of arming the rebels and are convinced that it is a breach of the arms embargo.

Western diplomats say that the language in resolution 1973 on the arms embargo is ambiguous and open to interpretation. But they also acknowledge that the majority of the 15 Security Council members believe that all arms transfers to Libya violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the arms embargo.

They said that Russia will undoubtedly soon register its disagreement with France's decision to arm the rebels, who a top U.N. official said earlier this week are gaining the upper hand in their fight against forces loyal to Gaddafi.

Analysts and U.N. diplomats warn that a decision by Western powers to exploit loopholes in, or secretly circumvent, a sanctions regime they themselves engineered could create an atmosphere of bad faith and prompt Russia or China to adopt a similar stance on the sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

(Editing by Philip Barbara)