Qatar becomes 1st Arab country to fly over Libya
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) – Fellow Arab and African nations raised the international pressure Friday on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, with tiny Qatar flying the Arab world’s first combat missions over his country and the African Union imploring him to move toward democratic elections.
The military operation against Gadhafi, which on Friday included airstrikes by British and French jets, remains a U.S.-led operation, though NATO was preparing to assume at least some command and control responsibility within days.
A Libyan government delegation meeting in Ethiopia with African leaders – but not the rebels seeking Gadhafi’s ouster – said he is ready to talk with his opponents and accept political reform, possibly including elections. But the delegation also said Libya is committed to a cease-fire that Gadhafi’s forces have flouted since the government announced it, and blamed the current violence on “extremists” and foreign intervention.
NATO named Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard to lead its Libyan operation, finalizing what it hopes will be a unified command to oversee military action against the North African nation.
Envoys from NATO’s 28 member countries agreed late Thursday to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. By Monday, the alliance expects to start doing so, as well as coordinating naval patrols in the Mediterranean to enforce the U.N. arms embargo against Gadhafi’s forces. With further approval expected Sunday, NATO will take over the responsibility for bombing Gadhafi’s military to protect civilians from attack.
A NATO official said Friday that NATO now hopes to launch both operations simultaneously within a couple of days, avoiding the need for dual commands – NATO for the no-fly zone and the U.S. for the airstrikes. The official requested anonymity because of regulations about speaking to the media.
A Qatari fighter jet flew the country’s first sortie alongside a French jet on Friday to enforce the no-fly zone, the first non-Western military flight in support of the operation.
“Having our first Arab nation join and start flying with us emphasizes that the world wants the innocent Libyan people protected from the atrocities perpetrated by pro-regime forces,” U.S. Air Forces Africa Commander Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward said.
Aside from the United Arab Emirates, which has pledged 12 warplanes, the international effort to protect Gadhafi’s opponents has no other countries from the Arab League, a 22-member group that was among the driving forces behind the U.N. Security Council decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The United States has provided millions of dollars in equipment to many of the league’s countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Qatar has close ties to the U.S. military, a reputation for international mediation, and hosts the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera network.
“Qatar has been a great ally from Day One,” said Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for opposition Benghazi city council. “It’s an Arab country to be proud of.”
A Health Ministry official, Khaled Omar, said a total of 114 Libyans have died in the international airstrikes, but he did not provide a breakdown of how many were soldiers or civilians.
“We think it is immoral and illegal to kill even our soldiers because we are taking defensive positions only,” said government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
Army Gen. Carter Ham said late Thursday that although he was not sure whether civilians died in airstrikes, “we have been very, very precise and discriminate in our targeting.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague went further, saying there have been “no confirmed civilian casualties” from airstrikes.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. The airstrikes have sapped the strength of Gadhafi’s forces, but rebel advances have also foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities.
The rebels claimed late Friday that they had taken the eastern gates of Ajdabiya, although that could not be independently confirmed, and such claims have been made before and proven wrong.
Earlier Friday, British and French warplanes hit near Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition’s eastern stronghold, and the western city of Misrata have especially suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to lift Gadhafi’s siege.
Rida al-Montasser, an activist from Misrata, said Gadhafi forces fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades from rooftops along a main street, hitting a market and a residential building. He said rebels were trying to chase the snipers from rooftops, and had rounded up about 30 of them so far.
A Libyan delegation met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with five African heads of state to discuss a solution to the crisis. Rebels, who were not at the Ethiopia meeting, demand Gadhafi’s ouster and say they will not negotiate with him.
African Union commission chairman Jean Ping said the AU favors a transition period in Libya that would lead to democratic elections. The statement is the strongest to come out of the AU since the Libya crisis began, and could be seen as a strong rebuke to Gadhafi, who has long been well regarded by the continental body.
Libyan negotiator Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi blamed the violence in Libya on “extremists” and foreign intervention but said the government was willing to consider talks.
“We are ready to discuss what the Libyan people want,” he said. “What kind of reform do they want? If it is elections we are willing to discuss about the details. We are willing to negotiate with anyone. These are our people. There is no division between the Libyan people; there is a division between extremists and the Libyan people.”
Britain’s senior military spokesman said the international mission was succeeding.
“We have not been able to stop all Col. Gadhafi’s attacks, and we would never pretend that we could,” Maj. Gen. John Lorimer told reporters in London Friday. But, he said, “They are losing aircraft, tanks, guns that they cannot replace. His ability to use these weapons against his own people is diminished daily.”
NATO also heads the ship blockade, but British officials on Friday have refused to say whether NATO ships would patrol the rebel-held coastal areas in the east. A slide shown to journalists Friday seemed to underline the ambiguity of the naval arms embargo.
“The entire coast will need to be monitored,” said Capt. Karl Evans, who briefed reporters at the Ministry of Defense in London. Behind him, a map of Libya visualizing the NATO blockade showed only the 600 miles (965 kilometers) of Gadhafi-controlled coastline highlighted in red, with the rebel-held east seemingly left out.
When pressed, senior military spokesman Lorimer intervened, saying that “we don’t have those kinds of details here.”
In Washington, the White House announced that President Barack Obama will give a speech to the nation Monday explaining his decision-making on the Libyan war.
The timing comes as some lawmakers of both major parties have complained that Obama has not sought their input about the U.S. role in the war or explained with enough clarity about the U.S. goals and exit strategy.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Benghazi, Libya; Pauline Jelinek in Washington; and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.