OTTAWA — Canada is poised to send in fighter jets to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, defence sources told The Canadian Press.
Six CF-18 fighter-bombers are being readied at Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, Que. and are expected to deploy overseas once the Harper government gives the official green light.
Their mission will be to enforce the no-fly zone that the United Nations Security Council authorized Thursday night, the sources said. The vote in the 15-member council was 10-0 with five abstentions, including Russia and China.<
A spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay refused to confirm or deny the decision to send the fighters, which are expected to join a number of countries in preventing the Libyan regime from using aircraft against rebels. Jay Paxton called it “speculation.” The official government announcement is expected Friday and is being held up because Ottawa has not obtained diplomatic approval or landing rights for the jets in Italy.
“Italy is just waking up and we’re waiting for the OK,” said a senior defence source on background. The Canadian military has been using the island nation of Malta as a staging point for evacuation’s from Libya, using C-130J Hercules and a C-17 transport.
But sources in Ottawa said the government of Malta, under Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, has made it clear that it wants to remain “neutral” in any potential military clash between the international community and dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. “They were fine with the humanitarian airlift, but not a military mission,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.
Italy would be the closest point from which to stage the CF-18s as they patrol over the coast of the oil-rich North African country that has been rocked by a popular uprising that’s turned into a civil war. U.S., French and British warplanes were expected to launch initial combat patrols Thursday night. They are flying out of bases in Cyprus and Sicily.
The Canadian jets are being drawn from 425 Squadron and the deployment will involve about 125 members of the air force. Whether the Canadian aircraft fly with NATO or as part of a broader coalition is still being hammered out, said the sources. With the Arab League’s endorsement of a no-fly zone last week, military planners say there is the distinct a number of non-alliance countries could be involved.
HMCS Charlottetown was ordered to the Mediterranean almost three weeks ago to aid in the evacuation of Canadians and foreign nationals from Libya. It has joined NATO’s standing force in the region and is expected to participate in blockade action to enforce a UN arms embargo against Gaddafi. Bringing a no-fly zone will mean that coalition aircraft will have to bomb Libya’s air defence system, including radar and missile batteries.
The campaign has the potential to unfold much the like air war over Kosovo in 1999, where NATO spent three months attacking not only Serbian air defences, but eventually ground units. That operation involved 1,000 warplanes. The recently upgraded CF-18s are capable of not only shooting down Libyan aircraft that violate the new zone, but also attacking infrastructure, said military sources. But no decision has been made on what missions they carry out, the sources added.