EU foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels today (10 March) ahead of a special summit on Friday dedicated to the ongoing civil war in Libya and to the wider Southern Mediterranean region. Ministers will reportedly assess the risk that the conflict could degenerate and drag on for a long time.
A high-ranking official, who asked not to be named, acknowledged that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s camp had found “a margin for manoeuvre” and that he was unlikely to relinquish power as quickly as anticipated.
The ministerial meeting is taking place at the initiative of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton ahead of an extraordinary EU summit on Libya and Northern Africa to be held tomorrow.
Another meeting of foreign ministers will take place in Gödöllő castle near Budapest at the weekend.
The two sides Libya appear to be cancelling one another out and it is important to keep tabs on which one is gaining more ground, the official explained. “We are working on the basis of events as they unfold,” he admitted.
The official was pressed by EurActiv to comment on what would happen if forces loyal to Gaddafi were to strengthen their positions and inflict massive causalities among the civil population in the rebel-controlled eastern part of the country.
But the official seemed confident that this would not happen and said that for the time being, the general impression was that troops loyal to Gaddafi were in more of a defensive mode.
“This is also the feeling of our interlocutors from Tunisia and Egypt, who have knowledge of the situation. We cannot say that what is taking place is a very strong counter-offensive. [Gaddafi] has widened his margin of manoeuvre, but he hasn’t gone very far,” the official said.
On this basis, there were two hypotheses, the official said. The first is that the conflict degenerates into a situation in which the civilian population is forced to flee to safety. The second is that Gaddafi’s forces use tanks, fighter jets and helicopters to strike the civilian population.
The official stopped short of indicating whether the EU would engage in military action against Gaddafi should such a worst-case scenario materialise. But he admitted that “international pressure would [then] become stronger for us to take action”.
The official explained that by “international community” he was referring to the Arab League, which has backed the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, and the African Union, which has adopted a clear stance against the Gaddafi regime.
“It’s with the Arab-African institutions that the EU intends to act,” the diplomat said.
Rising casualties and threats of hunger and a refugee crisis have increased the pressure on foreign governments to act, but many are wary of moving from sanctions straight to military action.
TV channels showed footage of rebels holding banners asking for external powers to impose a no-fly zone to shield them from air strikes.
The EU official made clear that a no-fly zone was not an issue to be discussed in an EU format, but rather at the UN Security Council. It is important to avoid creating a situation which many Arab countries would perceive as military intervention, he said.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made clear that imposing a no-fly zone was a matter for the United Nations and should not be a US-led initiative.
The White House said, however, that it felt a UN arms embargo on Libya contained enough flexibility to allow rebels to be armed. Earlier this week the State Department said it believed the rebels could not be armed.
Asked about apparent ambiguity shown by the EU, which earlier this week appeared to back a proposal by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime to establish an independent mission to assess the situation on the ground, a Western diplomat said the EU wanted investigations of human right violations to be carried out, “but not on Gaddafi’s terms”.