By David Brunnstrom, Reuters
BRUSSELS — NATO states could agree in hours for the alliance to take over command of military operations in Libya from coalition forces, a NATO official said on Sunday. The agreement could be made at a meeting of NATO ambassadors due at about 1600 GMT, the official said, adding that the military committee of the 28-nation alliance had finalized its operations plan. “That’s a good sign,” the official said. “Either the operations plan is approved by the ambassadors tonight, or that may happen tomorrow. Either way, it’s a matter of hours.” An agreement by ambassadors would mean the council of the NATO states would take political control of all military operations, including ground strikes to protect civilians, from a coalition led by France, the United States and Britain. However, a high-level body to include Arab states expected to emerge from an international conference in London on Tuesday, would give “broad political guidance,” the official said. French, Turkish Differences A decision for NATO to take over military operations has been delayed by disagreements between NATO members France and Turkey over political control of the mission, but these differences appear to have narrowed. Turkey has wanted to be able to use its NATO veto to limit allied operations against Libya’s infrastructure and avoid casualties among Muslim civilians. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters on Thursday that such fears had been addressed and command of military operations would be transferred completely to NATO. A Turkish foreign ministry official said on Friday Turkey wanted to be part of the steering group expected to be set up in London and have a role in the political decision-making. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu are both expected to attend the London meeting. French President Nicholas Sarkozy repeated on Friday that France wanted the alliance’s command and control “machinery” used to coordinate the air campaign, while political control rested in the hands of the members of the coalition. Turkey’s minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bagis, told reporters at the Brussels Forum conference on Sunday that discussion on NATO’s future role was ongoing, adding: “Turkey is entitled to express her views and help shape policies.” British Defence Minister Liam Fox told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that if a political agreement was reached, it would see NATO take over military operations in coming days. “(It) doesn’t actually mean that NATO will take over immediately. There’s an execution directive … if that’s successful tonight, over the next few days NATO will take complete command.” The NATO official said a handover to NATO command would take 48-72 hours.
NATO has said its no-fly zone in Libya, which it agreed to enforce on Thursday would be “impartial,” and would ban flights both by Gadhafi’s forces and his opponents, as would NATO enforcement on an arms embargo. The NATO official said it was a hypothetical question whether under an extended mandate the alliance might act to prevent movement by rebel ground forces, but said there had been no evidence so far that these posed a threat to civilian populations as Gadhafi’s had done.