VIENNA (Reuters) - NATO’s chief said on Thursday it was up to Libyan insurgents to fight Muammar Gaddafi’s forces on the ground and dismissed warnings of “mission creep,” but a rebel leader said they needed more arms to finish the job.
They spoke in Vienna a day after France became the first NATO member to openly acknowledge arming forces seeking to oust Gaddafi, who has so far resisted a three-month-old bombing campaign that has strained the alliance and rebel firepower.
“What rebels have at the moment are very light weapons simply to defend themselves, not weapons to win a battle,” Mahmoud Jibril, the insurgents’ diplomatic chief, told a news conference.
He said rebels were out of money and it could take years for them to start exporting oil again.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen separately told reporters the 28-nation alliance had not been involved in the French operation to airlift arms to Gaddafi’s foes and that he knew of no other country carrying out such deliveries.
France said the move did not break a U.N. arms embargo because weapons were needed to defend civilians under threat.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that arming Libyan rebels was a “crude violation” of a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in February.
“We asked our French colleagues today whether reports that weapons from France were delivered to Libyan rebels correspond with reality. ... If this is confirmed, it is a very crude violation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1970,” he said. U.N. diplomats have said that any arms transfers to the rebels without the prior consent of the United Nations Security Council Libya sanctions committee is a violation of the embargo.
But an objection would have to be raised with the committee, which is deemed unlikely.
Asked whether Paris might have violated the embargo, Rasmussen said: “As regards compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolution, it is for the U.N. sanctions committee to determine that.”
But he said NATO had “successfully implemented” the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya, the no fly zone, the arms embargo and also the “effective protection” of civilians.
The bombing is backed by a Security Council resolution authorizing force to protect civilians, but Britain, France and the United States say they will not stop until Gaddafi falls.
As the NATO operation extends beyond 90 days, fissures have appeared in the coalition against Gaddafi, with Italy calling for a suspension to the bombing and U.S. officials complaining about the lack of European firepower.
Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen warned this week against “mission creep,” in comments underscoring alliance divisions.
Rasmussen rejected such fears: “There is no mission creep and there will be no mission creep.”
The former Danish prime minister said: “I do believe that a combination of strong military pressure and reinforced political pressure -- more and more isolation of the Gaddafi regime -- will eventually lead to the collapse of the regime.”
The rebels’ advances have been slow, although they say they have made considerable progress in the past week.
“At the end of the day ... it is for the opposition forces to do the fighting on the ground because we have no intention whatsoever to put troops on the ground,” Rasmussen said.
Jibril, the rebel leader, said that arming the anti-Gaddafi forces could help speed an end to the civil war. “Giving them weapons will be able to decide the battle more quickly, so that we can shed as little blood as possible,” he said.