British Prime Minister David Cameron brushed aside doubts over how long Britain could maintain its role in Libya, saying it could stay in the fight for as long as needed.
Senior British military officers have complained about the strain on defence resources as the NATO bombing campaign enters its fourth month and rebels seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi sustain new losses.
The alliance for the first time admitted killing civilians in an aerial attack last week and Libya’s accusation on Monday that a further 19 died in a separate NATO air strike has raised further questions about the operation, Reuters reports.
“I’m absolutely confident that we can keep this pressure up, we can maintain this mission for as long as is necessary,” Cameron said after British media cited a leaked note from an air chief marshal warning of low morale in the force.
“Time is on our side, not on Gaddafi’s side,” he told a news conference in London.
Rebels have made slow progress since NATO countries joined the fight in March but are now inching towards Tripoli from a bastion in Misrata east of the capital and from the Western Mountains region to its southwest.
However the going has been tough and a medical official said on Tuesday 11 rebel fighters were killed and 36 were wounded in fighting around Misrata on Monday.
“Gaddafi’s forces have moved forward about a kilometre (half a mile),” Dr Mohammed Grigda told Reuters at the field hospital in Dafniya just outside Misrata.
It was impossible to verify the information but a Reuters reporter in Dafniya saw that rebel mortar positions had edged back slightly.
Separately, NATO said it lost an unmanned helicopter drone over Libya on Tuesday but denied a Libyan state television report that it was a manned Apache aircraft.
“NATO confirms it has not lost any attack helicopter,” NATO military spokesman Wing Commander Mike Bracken said in a statement. An “unmanned autonomous helicopter drone” had lost contact with its command centre, it said.
Gaddafi allies denounce the bombing campaign as a foreign attempt to force a change of government and seize the North African state’s oil, while NATO states defend the operation as a UN-mandated mission to protect the Libyan people.
The military bloc admitted on Sunday its weapons destroyed a house in Tripoli in which Libyan officials said nine civilians were killed.
Franco Frattini, foreign minister of NATO-member Italy, said
on Monday that civilian casualties put the mission’s credibility at stake and the Arab League condemned the loss of life in Sunday’s incident.
Libyan officials say NATO forces have killed more than 700 civilians, although they have not presented evidence of such large numbers of civilian deaths and NATO denies them.
Libya says one of Gaddafi’s sons and three of his grandchildren were killed six weeks ago when Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound was hit.
The international coalition backing the rebels only secured its U.N. mandate after intense diplomatic jostling and many countries in the Arab world, Africa and beyond are ill at ease at the sight of NATO bombs on African soil.
“These missions are extremely difficult. They are extremely dangerous. We faced this situation in Afghanistan, we faced it in the past in Kosovo,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a briefing.
“Overall however our view is that the NATO mission in Libya has been an essential component of our effort to make clear to Gaddafi that his days are numbered,” she added.
The alliance must also keep partners on board such as U.N. Security Council member China, where Mahmoud Jibril, head of the executive board of the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council, arrived on Tuesday for a two-day visit.
Asked whether Jibril’s visit marked a policy adjustment for China, which tends to stay out of domestic conflicts elsewhere, a foreign ministry spokesman described the Council as “an important domestic political force”.
“China is willing to continue maintaining contact with the National Transitional Council and its relevant parties, to seek a political solution to the problems in Libya,” he said.