Arming rebels not an option, France insists


FRANCE’S DEFENCE minister has said arming Libyan rebel forces is “not on the agenda” because it would be incompatible with the UN resolution which authorised foreign intervention.

The United States and Britain have left open the option of supplying weapons to opponents of Muammar Gadafy’s regime. In London this week, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and British prime minister David Cameron both suggested that the wording of resolution 1973, which allowed for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, did not rule out providing military aid. “We do not rule it out but we have not taken the decision to do so,” Mr Cameron said.

At a briefing in Paris yesterday, however, defence minister Gérard Longuet distanced himself from the comments. Asked whether the rebels had requested weapons or training, he said: “Such assistance is not on the agenda as it’s not compatible with resolution 1973 for the countries that voted for this resolution and are implementing it”.

Mr Longuet’s comments echo those of foreign minister Alain Juppé, who said while France was willing to discuss possible military aid to the rebels with coalition members, it believed this was “not allowed” by the current resolution.

After the defection of Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa, who travelled from Tunisia to Britain on Wednesday on a flight arranged by British intelligence, and whose resignation was confirmed by Tripoli yesterday, Mr Longuet indicated that the allies had close contact with other high-ranking figures of Col Gadafy’s regime. “We are very well informed on the thinking within the first and second circles around Gadafy, but we are keeping this information confidential,” he said.

Fighting continued between Col Gadafy’s forces and rebels in eastern Libya, meanwhile, as the two sides battled for control of the oil town of Brega.

Government soldiers have managed to reverse recent opposition gains, with some rebel forces having fallen back as far as the strategically important town of Ajdabiyah, about 150km south of opposition stronghold Benghazi.

Coalition air strikes have severely curtailed Col Gadafy’s tanks and heavy artillery, but Tripoli’s forces have switched tactics, using pick-up vans and rapid assaults by road and desert tracks to push the rebels back. “Our reconnaissance planes no longer see any movement by Gadafy’s units,” Mr Longuet said, but added that smaller, more mobile groups were difficult to identify from the air.

This partly explains why rebels, relying largely on pick-ups mounted with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and AK-47 assault rifles, have been unable to hold on to gains despite almost two weeks of strikes by US, French and British aircraft. The rebels’ rapid advance westwards over the weekend also left their supply lines stretched.

Sporadic explosions were reported near Brega yesterday, but the front line did not move substantially. Brega is one of several oil towns along the fiercely contested coastal strip. Ras Lanuf and Es Sider, west of Brega, have both been retaken by Col Gadafy’s forces. Zueitina, east of Brega, is still in rebel hands.

A French military spokesman said its aircraft had carried out 48 separate ground attacks since Tuesday, including the bombing of what it said were four munitions dumps in a compound 100km south of Tripoli. A recording shown by the defence ministry showed four missiles striking the compound almost simultaneously.

US aircraft still account for the single largest number of daily air missions, with France in second place, the spokesman said.

He also confirmed that 12 fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates had arrived at an air base in Sardinia to support the coalition operation. The participation of Arab states, notably Qatar and the UAE, was vital in winning the support of the UN security council for the intervention.