Nato admits 'limitations' in protecting Libyan civilians

A month after the start of allied airstrikes on the Libyan regime, Nato is starting to voice frustration at the limitations of its current mandate when it comes to protecting civilians from Gaddafi attacks, with French politicians now calling for the deployment of ground troops.

Amid continued shelling by Gaddafi forces on the sea port of Misrata where hundreds have died in the past days and thousands of injured persons are being evacuated by humanitarian organisations, Nato is struggling with the restrictions attached to its airstrike-only mandate given by the UN security council.

"Under our current mandate, using air-power to protect civilians has its limitations," Mark van Uhm, Nato's top commander of allied operations told journalists during a press briefing on Tuesday (19 April).

He explained that the pro-Gaddafi forces have changed tactics, making it harder for Nato to strike: "They are hiding tanks, using civilians as human shields, so there are limitations in what we can do, especially in urban areas."

Van Uhm insisted that Nato was making a difference, however, in terms of "having achieved that Gaddafi is not able to use his forces as he wants," with "more than 30 percent" of his tanks and other military arsenal destroyed by allied fighter jets.

Without wanting to set a deadline for the end of the mission, the one-star general said that Nato was not there to stay "win or lose", but until three objectives were met: no further threats to civilians; the withdrawal of Gaddafi's forces to their barracks; and the construction of a political solution to the crisis.

As for the possibility of deploying a military mission in support of humanitarian convoys, Van Uhm said that Nato "has plans in place should it be required to do so," but stressed that at the moment, aid can be provided by air, ground and sea and no military escorts are needed.

The EU itself last week adopted plans to deploy up to 1,000 soldiers in support of humanitarian convoys and evacuation efforts, were the UN to make such a request.

Asked whether Nato was consulted on these plans, the alliance's spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said that there is an "unprecedented level of consultations" between the two organisations when it comes to Libya.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton last week joined Nato foreign ministers at their meeting in Berlin on the topic. An informal gathering of Nato and EU ambassadors will also take place "in the next two weeks," she said.

Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen himself last week suggested he would welcome an EU military mission in support of humanitarian assistance on the ground.

Nato sources point to the fact that even if such assistance could be provided by the military alliance and plans have been drafted to that end, having the EU engaged on the ground for humanitarian support would "make sense so as to have a clear separation" from the Nato-led airstrikes and bombings.

France is meanwhile pushing for an EU mission to be deployed - pending a request from the UN humanitarian assistance co-ordination agency (Ocha).

The so-called concept of operations (Conops) for Eufor Libya are still vague in terms of deployed troops or type of military assets used, listing all possible scenarios in case Ocha makes a request: securing ports, convoys or establishing an air bridge for humanitarian aid.

Since the UN mandate specifically bans "occupation forces", deploying troops is off the table, for instance in protecting Misrata from shelling and shooting, unless Ocha asks for military assistance.

French politicians close to the Sarkozy government meanwhile have publicly called for special troops to be deployed in order to tip the scale in favour of the Libyan rebels and bring an end the two-month-long conflict.

Axel Poniatowski, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the National Assembly, on Monday said that special forces should be sent with a "limited mission" to guide allied air strikes and select ground targets without breaking the "spirit" of the UN resolution prohibiting ground troops.

A rebel spokesman in Misrata on Tuesday told Reuters they had "made progress" in the city, despite facing snipers and troops armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

"It is clear Gaddafi wants to wipe out Misrata. Nato's inaction is helping him carry out this plan. Are they waiting for a massacre to realise that they need to change tactics?" he said.

The UK meanwhile has announced it would send military officers to advise the rebels on how to better protect the civilian population in a joint mission with France.

British foreign minister William Hague said the mission is compatible with the UN restrictions, as the officers would not be engaged in fighting.

[Source: Eurobserver, Brussels, 19Apr11]

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