Britain pressured other NATO members to beef up ground attacks in Libya as foreign ministers met in Qatar to try to open the deadlock in the country’s civil war.
But divisions within NATO immediately appeared at the international “contact group” meeting when Belgium ruled out boosting air attacks or arming Libyan rebels.
There is increasing frustration in Paris and London that air strikes have neither tipped the balance of the war in favour of rebels trying to end Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule nor even ended devastating shelling of the besieged city of Misrata.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe attacked NATO on Tuesday for not stopping the bombardment and said it must do more. His British counterpart, William Hague, told Reuters on his way to Doha that other NATO aircraft must join ground attacks, Reuters reports.
Britain and France, western Europe’s two main military powers, are delivering most of the air strikes on Gaddafi’s armour since President Barack 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.
Other NATO countries are either keeping their distance from the campaign or enforcing a no-fly zone.
The rebels, whose rag-tag army has shown itself incapable of consolidating any advance against Gaddafi’s better armed and trained army on the eastern front, despite NATO strikes, again appealed for more weapons.
A spokesman for the rebel national council, which is attending the Doha talks, said the coalition was considering supplying arms which he said should go to trained soldiers who have defected from Gaddafi’s army.
MORE POWERFUL FORCE
Hague told Reuters that NATO needed a more powerful strike force, and that 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.
“There are many other nations around Europe and indeed Arab nations who are part of this coalition. There is scope for some of them to move some of their aircraft from air defence into ground-strike capability.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called on Tuesday for NATO to do more to destroy Gaddafi’s armour on the ground and lift the siege of Misrata, the rebel-held port in the west.
Hague also sought a clear statement from the ministerial group that Gaddafi must go, a demand reiterated in Doha by the rebel national council. The group of international powers has struggled to reach a consensus on calling for “regime change.”
There is clearly a wide gap between NATO hawks and doves.
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 forces there.
Rebel spokesman Mahmud Awad Shammam 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.
But he added: “They have to say the magic word — that Gaddafi must go.”
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.
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,” Shammam said.
The contact group meeting comes amid reports of a deepening humanitarian crisis in Misrata.
Insurgents said renewed artillery bombardments and heavy fighting hit Misrata on Tuesday. They said they had beaten back two government offensives but civilians remained under fire and desperately short of food and medicines.
An Italian foreign ministry official said in Doha that the ministers would look at creating a fund from Libya’s frozen assets to aid the rebels. A rebel representative said they would ask for $1.5 billion in aid for civilians.
Rebel spokesman Shammam said the rebels wanted to increase exports of crude oil to secure humanitarian aid rather than cash. Gaddafi’s forces have attacked oil fields in the rebel east to choke off exports and Shammam said the insurgents were only exporting a minimal amount.
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 the biggest problem for coalition aircraft is fear of hitting civilians, with Gaddafi hiding his armour in residential areas.
Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition that they not be identified, said Washington’s position had not shifted. But they added that some powerful weapons unique to the U.S. military — probably A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft or AC-130 gunships — could be deployed against Gaddafi’s heavy weaponry.
The Pentagon said on Tuesday however that NATO had not asked the United States to intensify its military operations.
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.