DOHA/ TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Ministers gathered in Qatar Wednesday for talks on Libya’s future, with some eager to step up air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, fearing the conflict could settle into a bloody stalemate.
Foreign Secretary William Hague told Reuters on his flight to a meeting of an international “contact group” that NATO needed a more powerful strike force in Libya, and sanctions on the Libyan government should be intensified.
“We have sent more ground strike aircraft in order to protect civilians. We do look to other countries to do the same, if necessary, over time,” he said in an interview.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, whose country is the other major contributor to the air campaign, called Tuesday for NATO to do more to destroy Gaddafi’s armour on the ground and lift the siege of the rebel-held western port of Misrata.
Hague also sought a clear statement from the ministerial group that Gaddafi must go. Rebels rejected an African Union initiative to broker a cease-fire because the peace plan gave no guarantee that the veteran ruler would step aside.
The “contact group” will hear from representatives of the rebel national council based in eastern Libya, who show little sign so far of being able to dislodge Gaddafi from power in Tripoli despite the international air campaign.
A spokesman for the rebels in Doha reiterated that they would not consider any peace plan that included a role for Gaddafi, and said countries involved in the coalition were looking into arming the opposition.
However, he said the national council took a positive view of an initiative by Muslim NATO member Turkey, which initially opposed military action, for a peaceful transition in Libya.
Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim lashed out against the West’s “imperialist way of thinking,” accusing world powers of trying to impose political change on Libya.
“We are ready to fight if it’s necessary. Not the Libyan army but every man and woman and every tribe in Libya,” he said in Tripoli late Tuesday.
Moussa Koussa, a former Libyan foreign minister who fled to Britain last month, was in Doha on the sidelines of the contact group talks to meet the rebels, the British government said. But the rebel spokesman said they did not plan to speak to him.
“We do not want to speak to Moussa Koussa … because of his human rights record,” said Mahmud Awad Shammam, press secretary for Libyan National Council.
The contact group meeting comes amid reports of a deepening humanitarian crisis in Misrata.
“It is not acceptable that Misrata is still under fire and being bombarded by Gaddafi’s troops,” Juppe said in Luxembourg Tuesday.
NATO took over air operations from a coalition of the United States, Britain and France on March 31 and the rebels have accused it of not doing enough.
The United States has specialist ground-attack aircraft on standby in Italy but has not used them to fire on Gaddafi’s forces since President Barack Obama ordered that U.S. forces pull back from strike missions after the handover to NATO.
Insurgents said renewed artillery bombardments and heavy fighting hit Misrata Tuesday. They said they had beaten back two government offensives but civilians remained under fire and short of food and medicines.
Juppe said NATO must stop Gaddafi shelling civilians and take out the heavy weapons bombarding the city. “NATO must play its role fully,” he said.
NATO, which is operating under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, rejected criticism saying the pace of operations was determined by the need to protect civilians.
Late Tuesday, the alliance said its planes had destroyed five tanks close to Misrata. “Our aircraft will continue to hit regime targets around Misrata,” NATO operation commander Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said in a statement.
U.S. ROLE “RECEDES”
Britain and France, Europe’s two main military powers, are carrying out most of the air strikes on Gaddafi’s armour since Obama ordered U.S. forces to take a back seat. The Americans are providing intelligence, logistical support and air-to-air refuelling, but not bombing.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, said Washington’s position had not shifted. But they added that some military assets unique to the U.S. military — probably A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft or AC-130 gunships — could be brought to bear on Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry.
The Pentagon said Tuesday however that NATO had not asked the United States to intensify its military operations.
“We feel like we’ve contributed a great deal to the success of this operation thus far,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “Our role has receded in this mission.”
The range of views among the 28 members of the NATO alliance is wide. Germany, Turkey and Poland opposed the Libya operation and are not involved in the air campaign.
Italy has said its aircraft will not open fire, the Dutch are enforcing the no-fly zone but may not bomb ground targets and non-NATO Swedish planes may only open fire in self-defence while patrolling the no-fly zone.
A Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll found most people in Britain, Italy and the United States felt their country could not afford military action, while a majority in all countries polled except France felt NATO action in Libya did not have clear objectives.
France, Italy and Qatar have recognized the rebels. Qatar has been marketing oil from rebel-held Libya. The rebel spokesman said they were producing 100,000 barrels of oil a day but not yet receiving any cash, although they needed $1.5 billion (920.8 million pounds) in aid to cover the needs of citizens.