NATO Operation Unified Protector against Libya Making Use of Greek Bases in Crete, the Peloponnese

The Western military offensive against the Libyan government of Moammar Gaddafi has been officially handed over to NATO and allied countries such as Greece are playing a key, if less visible role.

The NATO Mediterranean headquarters in Naples, Italy is overseeing Operation “Unified Protector,” under the command of Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard. Other bases including one in Izmir, Turkey. But the Greek island of Crete – which sits opposite Libya – is strategically more important.

NATO’s naval operations base at Souda Bay, in the northwestern prefecture of Chania, has long been considered the most important base for air and nautical operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Even in ‘peaceful times,’ the base sees much activity.

Along with the large Greek air and nava base at this protected, deep bay, an American NATO base and a NATO maritime interdiction center (among other specialized NATO schools) are located.

Currently, seven Greek airfields (including Souda) are being used for the Libya operation, hosting more than 40 fighter jets from the USA, France, Belgium, UAE, Qatar, Denmark and soon other allied states. Another four Greek jets, one frigate, two or three smaller ships and two rescue helicopters are being employed.

Radar bases in Crete are on full alert, as are the anti-aircraft and anti-ballistic systems, due to the perceived fear of retaliation by Libya with its Scud -C missiles. However, the military believes that such possibilities are slim, as the radius and ability of these missiles is the subject of dispute- it is not sure if they could even reach Crete, should Libyan forces try to use them.

Further north, Belgian F-16 s together with Greek ones have recently conducted exercises in the southwestern Peloponnese. The bomb-targeting exercises were held in the Karavia training grounds, and simulated bombing of military installations in Libya.

Currently, every military center in Crete and the Peloponnese is on high alert, while the crisis center in the Ministry of Defense in Athens has been activated over the past 14 days.

NATO has announced that the operation in Libya may last for up to 90 days, though this is subject to change. This operation is coming at a very difficult time for Greece, which faces considerable public discord over budget austerity measures. For the Libya operation, Greece must spend approximately 4 million euros per day.

A small number of Libyans live and work in Greece, primarily in Athens, and the majority of them have voiced anti-Gadaffi sentiment, even holding demonstrations outside the Libyan embassy in the capital.

Greek security planners are preparing for other risks that could accompany a protracted conflict, including refugee crises, arms smuggling and other forms of organized crime. Colonel Gaddafi’s influential, Western-educated second son, Saif Al-Islam recently told the French Television Arte that Libya could become a “second Somalia,” afflicting the Mediterranean with the scourge of piracy and bringing more opportunities for terrorists to attack European targets.

[Source: Balkanalysis.com Research Service, 31Mar11]

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