CAIRO/ BENGHAZI, (Reuters) – Leaders of five big emerging powers on Thursday condemned NATO-led air strikes against Libya after Western and Arab countries issued their first joint call for Muammar Gaddafi to step down.
Diplomats will make a new effort to forge an end to the Libyan civil war on Thursday with no clear military strategy in place to force the Libyan leader out.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Arab League head Amr Moussa and officials from the African Union and Organisation of the Islamic Conference will discuss Libya at Arab League headquarters in Cairo.
Though the United Nations Security Council gave a mandate last month to Western and some Arab states to attack Gaddafi’s forces on the grounds of protecting Libyan civilians, the war has attracted hostility from other world powers.
At a meeting in China of the BRICS emerging powers, an official said all five leaders “condemned the bombings.” In the March 17 Security Council vote authorising military action, Brazil, Russia, India and China abstained. South Africa voted in favour.
“We are deeply concerned with the turbulence in the Middle East, the North African and West African regions,” the BRICS leaders said in a statement after the summit in the Chinese resort of Sanya.
“We share the principle that the use of force should be avoided,” they added while urging a peaceful settlement of the Libyan conflict and praising the mediation efforts of the African Union.
Foreign ministers from a group of Western powers and Middle Eastern states met on Wednesday in Qatar and jointly called for the first time for an end to Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Britain and France are leading air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, but have grown frustrated with the lack of support from NATO allies. After heading up the campaign in its early days, Washington is taking a back seat, and other NATO states are playing smaller roles.
“Gaddafi and his regime has lost all legitimacy and he must leave power allowing the Libyan people to determine their future,” the “contact group” of Western and Middle Eastern states meeting in Qatar said in a final statement on Wednesday.
It also said the rebels’ national council, “in contrast with the current regime … is a legitimate interlocutor, representing the aspirations of the Libyan people.”
The wording was much tougher than at a conference two weeks ago and gave stronger backing to insurgents fighting to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, but it papered over divisions among the allies on what action to take.
Foreign Secretary William Hague called for more alliance members to join attacks on ground targets and his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, called for heavier military pressure on Gaddafi’s troops to convince him to leave power.
But Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere said the March 17 U.N. resolution authorising NATO action in Libya — to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s government forces — ruled out arming civilians and he saw no need to boost air power there.
The rebels said they were in talks with “friendly” countries to obtain arms: “I don’t think there will be a problem getting weapons,” national council spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga told reporters in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
A French presidential source said Paris had no plans to arm the rebels, although it would not oppose other countries if they decided to do so.
Britain said on Wednesday it would supply 1,000 sets of body armour from surplus British defence supplies to Libyan rebels, on top of the 100 satellite phones already sent.
Rebels have reported heavy fighting in Misrata, their last major stronghold in the western part of the country, and clashes with Gaddafi troops east of Brega, a government-held port in the largely rebel-held east.
A resident and rebel sympathiser in Misrata named Ghassan said on Wednesday that rebels had pushed back government forces on its central Tripoli Street.
“After they withdrew they fired artillery at the Al-Bira neighbourhood, which lies in the centre near Tripoli Street,” he said. “We haven’t been able to reach the hospital to check whether there were any people killed or injured.”
Another rebel spokesman called Abdelrahman told Reuters that rebel fighters had attacked pro-Gaddafi forces on a hill west of Zintan, the rebels’ other redoubt in the west, on Wednesday.
“There were no NATO air strikes today. The last air strike in the Zintan area was on Friday,” he said. “The main problem in Zintan is from fuel shortages. There are also water shortages and electricity is not always available.”