BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO has planned for a three-month no-fly operation over Libya, but could make it longer or shorter if necessary, an alliance official said on Friday of a mission that is due to start early next week.
The U.N.-mandated no-fly mission, approved by NATO states on Thursday, will involve dozens of planes from the 28-nation military alliance.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance would decide “in coming days” whether to broaden its role to take over full command of military operations, including ground strikes to protect civilians, from a coalition led by France, the United States and Britain, which began air strikes almost a week ago.
In the meantime, she said, “the coalition operation will continue to put pressure on the Libyan regime.”
Asked about the time frame for the no-fly mission, another NATO official said: “Much of the planning assumptions were based on a three-month planning window, but should the (NATO commander) feel it’s necessary to extend it, then he would simply have to say... I am anticipating it may be more or less.”
A military briefer said the aim was to close Libyan air space to all but authorized aid flights and it would bar flights both by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels.
NATO officials said the mission was expected to involve 5-10 AWACS surveillance planes, 10-15 refueling tankers, as well as dozens of fighters.
About 10 NATO members and the Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have pledged planes and, apart from commonly funded NATO assets, costs will be borne by contributing states.
Group Captain Geoffrey Booth said the mission would be run from NATO’s Joint Operations Command at Naples. Booth said it would be commanded by U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear.
But a NATO official said later Canadian General Charles Bouchard had been appointed commander of alliance operations, including the no-fly zone and enforcement of the arms embargo. Bouchard is currently deputy commander of the Joint Operations Command.
“If they are directly targeted, crews can act in self-defense,” he said. A response to a perceived threat, rather than direct targeting, would have to come via the chain of command with the principle being to “always apply the minimum force required to achieve effect,” he said.
NATO pilots would be able allowed to engage ground targets, such as surface-to-air missiles, but only if threatened.
“You have the right to respond,” he said. “It doesn’t give you the right to just bomb targets on the ground.”
Booth said his understanding was that the threat posed by Gaddafi’s air defenses had been “significantly degraded.”
The decision for NATO to take over the no-fly zone from the coalition was held up by French concerns about the unpopularity of the U.S.-led alliance in the Arab world and Turkey’s desire to limit operations against Libyan infrastructure and to avoid casualties among fellow-Muslim civilians.
NATO ambassadors will meet Sunday to discuss plans for broadening the alliance mandate to take full command of military operations, including over attacks on ground targets to protect civilian areas under threat from Gaddafi’s forces.
Officials said it was not clear if a decision would be made before a meeting in London Tuesday to set up a high-level steering group, including Arab states, to provide political guidance for the international response to the Libya crisis.
Turkey wants to be part of the steering group and have a role in the political decision-making, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.
NATO officials said if all 28 member states agreed to expand the role of the alliance, it would give it “political control of operational decisions.” However, they said it would “take into account” the guidance of the body that emerges from London.
French President Nicholas Sarkozy, whose government has insisted on a “technical” role for NATO, said it wanted the alliance’s command and control “machinery” used to coordinate the air campaign, while political control rested in the hands of the 11 members of the coalition.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Jon Hemming