By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — NATO warships have begun patrolling off Libya’s coast to enforce a United Nations-mandated arms embargo.
Canadian Brigadier General Pierre St. Amand of NATO’s military staff told a media briefing today that NATO had received offers for up to 16 vessels to patrol the Mediterranean.
He said Turkey alone had offered five ships and one submarine to join the operation, dubbed Unified Protector, which he said was now “under way.”
Other members offering vessels included Britain, Canada, Greece, Italy, Romania, Spain, and the United States.
Alliance spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said naval operation Unified Protector was important to stop the “flow of arms and mercenaries” into Libya that intelligence reports say is continuing.
Canadian Brigadier General Pierre Saint Amand (left) and NATO spokewoman Oana Lungescu (R) brief the media in Brussels on March 23.
Lungescu also said NATO allies were continuing to discuss the role of the alliance in the enforcement of the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya.
“Consultation on activation of those plans are currently ongoing among all 28 allies,” There has to be consensus as 28 to activate that plan.”
Debating Leadership, No-Fly Zone
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on March 22 that members had completed plans to help enforce the UN-mandated air exclusion zone “if needed.”
But some members, including France and Turkey, have expressed reservations about the alliance taking the lead in the Libyan mission.
One compromise proposal has been made by France, which argues that operations led under the flag of the Western alliance could alienate Arab states.
Under that proposal, a special committee of foreign ministers from the international coalition would have political control of the mission — with Arab League participation.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said NATO would intervene “as a tool for planning and operational action” in the international coalition in Libya but “will not exercise political leadership.”
The White House announced on March 22 that U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and British Prime Minister David Cameron had agreed that NATO should play a “key role” in the command structure of efforts to enforce the no-fly zone.
During a visit to El Salvador, Obama later said that U.S. command over coalition air strikes against Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi’s forces would be handed over in the next few days to Washington’s allies.
“We have unique capabilities,” Obama said. “We came in up front fairly heavily, fairly substantially, and at considerable risk to our military personnel and when this transition takes place it is not going to be our planes maintaining the no fly zone.”
The president said the allies should be able to announce soon that they have achieved the objective of creating the no-fly zone over Libya and protect civilians from attacks by Qaddafi’s forces.
But he cautioned that Qaddafi would present a potential threat to his people “unless he is willing to step down.”
Under Attack From ‘Fascists’
As discussions were going on who should take the leading role in the Libya mission, Qaddafi remained defiant.
Addressing a crowd of supporters at his compound in Tripoli on March 22, the Libyan leader said his people were under attack from “fascists” and called on other Muslim countries to “take part in the battle against the crusaders.”
“It’s a new crusade, a crusade against Islam! Long live Islam everywhere! All Islamic armies, take part in the battle!” Qaddafi said.
“Demonstrations are taking place everywhere, in Asia, in Africa, in America, in Europe! Their people are against them! Their people are against them!”
Western warplanes have flown more than 300 sorties over Libya and more than 160 cruise missiles have been fired in the UN-mandated mission.
The strikes have managed to ground Qaddafi’s aircraft and to push back his forces from the brink of rebel stronghold Benghazi, but disorganized and poorly equipped rebels have been unable to dislodge Qaddafi’s forces from the key junction of Ajdabiyah in the east.
As air strikes entered their fifth day, correspondents reported explosions rocked the capital early today.
Reports say warplanes silenced Qaddafi’s artillery and tanks around the last big rebel holdout of Misrata in the west, where residents say the siege is becoming increasingly desperate, with water cut off for days and food running out, and many of the wounded left untreated.
Clashes also were reported today near the rebel-held Zintan near the border with Tunisia, and in the town of Yafran, southwest of Tripoli.