U.S., NATO Allies Say They Lack Authority to Impose No-Fly Zone Over Libya

U.S., NATO Allies Say They Lack Authority to Impose No-Fly Zone Over Libya 
The U.S. and its NATO allies said they lacked the authority to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to ground Muammar Qaddafi’s air force, as European governments squabbled over the best response to the intensifying conflict.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 28 defense ministers agreed to deploy ships off Libya and said more planning and a United Nations mandate were needed to establish a no-fly zone. European Union leaders at a summit today may issue a statement condemning Qaddafi and move to establish contact with rebel leadership in Benghazi, British officials said.

“I can’t imagine the international community and the United Nations will stand idly by if Colonel Qaddafi continues attacking his people systematically,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday in Brussels. “But I have to say we do not look for intervention in Libya and we will need a clear legal basis for any action.”

The NATO decision doused calls for more aggressive military action as rebels in the oil hub of Ras Lanuf retreated under air and artillery fire from Qaddafi’s forces, Al-Jazeera showed in a broadcast. The French government, which along with the U.K. has called for a no-fly zone, raised the pressure by unilaterally recognizing Libya’s opposition leaders.

For now, the alliance will move ships closer to Libya to observe what Qaddafi’s forces are doing and police the UN arms embargo.

No Unilateral Action

NATO won’t act alone militarily, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. “A number of ministers made clear that we wanted to put ourselves in a position to assist the Arab League, the African Union or the UN in this endeavor,” Gates said.

EU leaders received a letter from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron late yesterday calling on them to press on with plans for a “no-fly zone or other options against air attacks.” They repeated their plea that Qaddafi quit the country and backed the rebels’ transitional council as “valid political interlocutors.”

NATO will get a report March 15 on military options regarding Libya, as the U.S. and its allies continue to examine a full range of possibilities, Jay Carney, spokesman for President Barack Obama, said in Washington yesterday.

Libyan government troops focused their attacks on the central area of the country’s coastline that marks the east-west dividing line in the conflict. Libya, which holds Africa’s largest oil reserves, has seen its crude output drop by about 1 million barrels a day. Oil prices have risen more than 20 percent as the conflict rages.

France Isolated

NATO’s position, as well as steps by the EU yesterday to ratchet up sanctions, papered over disagreements between Western allies about how far to go to stop Qaddafi. France roiled an EU foreign ministers gathering, first by saying it would recognize a Libyan rebel group and then with media reports that it wanted to bomb Qaddafi’s strongholds.

“The French position didn’t muster any consensus,” Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere told reporters. “In fact, there were some voices against it. The general view is that Europe has to act together, and you can’t have countries going off on their own.”

U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox said NATO leaders have a responsibility to plan for more aggressive military measures.

“What would be unforgivable is if we politically agreed it was necessary and we hadn’t done the planning to act,” Fox said with respect to preparations for the no-fly option.

Rasmussen expressed concern about the broader consequences of a breakdown of the Libyan state.

“There is the risk of division within the country and the risk of seeing a failed state in the future that could be the breeding ground of extremism and terrorism,” he told reporters.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was more blunt about the risks of Western involvement. “We don’t want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Donahue in Brussels at pdonahue1@bloomberg.net; Thomas Penny in Brussels at tpenny@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net