AJDABIYA, LIBYA—President Barack Obama says he has no doubt that the U.S. will be able to transfer control of the military operation in Libya to an international coalition within days.
Obama and other U.S. officials have insisted that the role of the U.S. military will be scaled back in coming days as other countries begin carrying out airstrikes designed to deter forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
NATO has yet to step up to take the lead, and France has proposed that a committee be created to oversee the operation.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe says the new body will bring together foreign ministers of participating states — such as Britain, France and the United States — as well as the Arab League. It is expected to meet in the coming days, either in Brussels, London or Paris.
Jupe says not all members of the military coalition are members of NATO and “this is therefore not a NATO operation.” But he says the coalition would use the NATO’s “planning and intervention capabilities.”
Not all NATO members are in favour of the no-fly zone and airstrikes against Libya.
An American fighter jet crashed in Libya’s rebel held east, both crew ejecting safely as the aircraft spun from the sky during the third night of the U.S. and European air campaign. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces shelled rebels regrouping in the dunes outside a key eastern city on Tuesday, and his snipers and tanks roamed the last major opposition-held city in the west.
The crash was the first major loss for the U.S. and European military air campaign, which over three nights appears to have hobbled Gadhafi’s air defences and artillery and rescued the rebels from impending defeat. But the opposition force, with more enthusiasm than discipline, has struggled to exploit the gains. The international alliance, too, has shown fractures as officials struggle to articulate an endgame.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that “until he stops, I think that this military operation to enforce a no-fly zone will have to continue.”
Ban spoke during a visit Tuesday with post-revolutionary leaders in Tunisia, Libya’s neighbour.
Ban said that the military operation by an international coalition is neither interference in Libya’s internal affairs nor “occupation by foreign forces.” It is “simply protecting the civilian population.”
He added that “the first and foremost thing should come from Col. Gadhafi. He must stop killing his own people.”
China and Russia, which abstained from the UN Security Council vote authorizing the international intervention, called for a cease-fire Tuesday, after a night when international strikes hit Tripoli, destroying a military seaport in the capital.
Most of eastern Libya, where the plane crashed, is in rebel hands but the force has struggled to take advantage of the gains from the international air campaign.
Monday night, Libyan state TV said a new round of strikes had begun in Tripoli, marking the third night of bombardment. Col. Abdel-Baset Ali, operations officer in the port, said the strikes caused millions of dollars in losses, but no human casualties.
Warehouses containing military equipment were hit, apparently by missiles that punched through a corrugated roof and left a crater in one building. Four trucks loaded with rocket launchers were destroyed, as was other transportation and equipment.
But while the airstrikes can stop Gadhafi’s troops from attacking rebel cities — in line with the U.N. mandate to protect civilians — the United States, at least, appeared deeply reluctant to go beyond that toward actively helping the rebel cause to oust the Libyan leader.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates and others said the U.S. military’s role will lessen in coming days as other countries take on more missions and the need declines for large-scale offensive action like the barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired mainly by U.S. ships and submarines off Libya’s coast.
A senior defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified data, said Monday that the attacks thus far had reduced Libya’s air defence capabilities by more than 50 per cent. That has enabled the coalition to focus more on extending the no-fly zone, which is now mainly over the coastal waters off Libya and around the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east, across the country to the Tripoli area this week.
In his first public comments on the crisis, Army Gen. Carter Ham, the lead U.S. commander, said it was possible that Gadhafi might retain power.
“I don’t think anyone would say that is ideal,” the general said Monday, foreseeing a possible outcome that stands in contrast to President Barack Obama’s declaration that Gadhafi must go.
The Libyan leader has ruled the North African nation for more than four decades and was a target of American air attacks in 1986.