BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday any NATO military action in Libya would have to be based on there being a demonstrable need, a clear mandate and support in the region.
“Any operation we undertake needs to respect three key principles,” Rasmussen said, as NATO defense ministers met to discuss options to respond to the turmoil in Libya, including a possible “no-fly” zone.
“Firstly there has to be demonstrable need for NATO action, secondly there has to be a clear legal basis, and thirdly there has to be firm regional support.”
Ahead of the meeting, U.S. and British officials played down the possibility of a decision being reached soon on imposing a no-fly zone.
Libyan opponents of Muammar Gaddafi have called for support for their armed struggle — including such a measure to prevent the use of government warplanes against rebel forces.
Britain and France are seeking U.N. authority to impose a no-fly zone as Gaddafi’s forces battle with anti-government rebels seeking to end his 41-year rule.
However, analysts doubt Russia and China would provide the necessary backing and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has appeared cautious, warning that a no-fly zone would need air strikes to cripple Libyan air defenses and expressing concern about more U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
Rasmussen said NATO had stepped up surveillance in the Mediterranean and was increasing the operating capability of NATO’s AWACS aircraft over Libya to 24 hours a day.
“It does not mean we are deciding to carry out specific operational steps today, but it does mean that we are watching what the Libyan regime does to its people very closely indeed,” Rasmussen said.
“If there is demonstrable need, if we have a clear mandate and strong regional support we stand ready to help,” he said. “Time is of the essence.”
NATO member Turkey, which has spoken against a no-fly zone, has emphasized the need for a U.N. resolution for any NATO role.
A senior U.S. official briefing on Wednesday said Washington would like to see a U.N. Security Council resolution and said Washington believed NATO was the “natural choice” for carrying out any military action.
He said a definition of “demonstrable need” that could trigger a no-fly zone would include “large-scale bombing raids by the Libyan air force of civilian populations.”
Britain has envisaged a more limited option of a no-fly zone than that laid out by Gates.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox told BBC radio on Thursday that the threat of retaliation could be used rather than destroying air defenses.
“You can say that if your air defense radar locks on to any of our aircraft, we regard that as a hostile act and we would take subsequent action,” he said. “That is one military option but there are other military options... we’d want to look at all of these.”
reporting by Missy Ryan and David Brunnstrom, editing by Rex Merrifield