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French Arms for Libyan Rebels

Revelations that the French government had provided rebels fighting the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with armaments at the beginning of June in apparent contravention of UN Security Resolution 1970 brought a sharp response from the Libyan government last week, when Gaddafi told supporters that “the Libyan people are able to take this battle to Europe, to target your homes, offices, families, in the same way as you have targeted our homes.”

“We can decide to treat you in a similar way,” Gaddafi said in what appeared to be a pre-recorded message delivered to crowds in the Libyan capital Tripoli. “If we decide to do so, we are able to move on Europe like locusts or bees.”

The revelations, made in an article published in the French newspaper Le Figaro last week, said that the French military had airdropped a “significant quantity” of arms to rebels fighting against the Gaddafi regime in the Nafusah Mountains in the south of the country, including rocket launchers, attack rifles, mortars and anti-tank missiles.

The weapons had been taken by air to the eastern city of Benghazi, base of the rebel Libyan Transitional National Council, from where they had been taken to the rebel-held coastal city of Misrata before being transported by air to the south of the country, in an effort to step up internal military pressure on the Gaddafi regime, until now hobbled by a lack of trained fighters and weaponry.

According to Le Figaro, the French military had decided to go ahead with the weapons drop without informing its partners, including the British, because “there was no other way of prosecuting the war” against Gaddafi. “The rebels have been able to secure a vast area going from the Tunisian frontier to Gharian, a strategic location 60km south of Tripoli,” the article said.

However, this area could not be held against attack without heavy weapons and anti-tank missiles, also necessary for use against pro-Gaddafi forces located south of Tripoli. “The French decision to arm the rebels is part of the same thinking that had earlier led to a decision to use attack helicopters at Misrata,” the article said, necessary in order to “unblock what has become a blocked situation.”

French diplomacy went into overdrive in efforts to minimise the revelations, with the country’s foreign minister, Alain Jupp–?, in Moscow last week for a bilateral visit, claiming that “we have acted in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolutions and have informed the Security Council and our NATO partners,” without making it clear whether this had taken place before or after the arms drops.

Reports in the French press at the weekend quoted a French military spokesman as saying that “certain airdrops had been made in order to prevent civilians [in rebel zones] being massacred by the Libyan army.” Only light weapons had been dropped, the spokesman said, denying that anti-tank missiles had also been parachuted in.

Speaking last Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that his organisation had “no information” on the French initiative, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “if confirmed, this is a very crude violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1970” and demanded an explanation from Paris.

A meeting of the NATO-Russia Council took place in the Russian resort town of Sochi on Monday, at which the situation in Libya was discussed. At a joint press conference with Lavrov after the meeting, Rasmussen said that the NATO actions in Libya were necessary, since “without NATO’s action countless more people would have been killed.”

“The operation has a strong legal base. Our mandate is the historic resolution of the United Nations Security Council, and we are fully complying with that mandate. We conduct our operations with utmost care, we do not target individuals, and we have no intention of putting troops on the ground” in Libya, he said.

Security Council Resolution 1970, passed on 26 February, instructs UN member states to “take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya??? of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned, and technical assistance, training, financial or other assistance.”

Resolution 1973, passed on 17 March, authorises “all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory” and provides the mandate for the ongoing NATO-led military intervention in the Libyan crisis.

Revelations that the French military had intervened to arm rebels fighting against the Gaddafi regime have heightened fears that the NATO-led bombing campaign, carried out to enforce UN Security Resolution 1973, which does not allow direct military action against the Gaddafi regime, is no closer to persuading Gaddafi to step down from power or to accelerating defections from the regime.

Since the campaign was placed under NATO leadership three months ago, some 13,000 sorties have been flown by NATO forces over Libya, 5,000 of them strike sorties, with much of the country’s military infrastructure being destroyed as a result.

However, there have been signs of strain within the alliance, with Germany refusing to support the military action and abstaining in the vote on Security Council Resolution 1973 and other NATO members offering only token support.

Following the withdrawal of US forces from a leadership role on 28 March, British and French forces have carried out the lion’s share of actions in Libya, with both countries apparently now feeling financial and other forms of strain.

According to a report in the French newspaper Le Monde at the weekend, from the French point of view the Libyan conflict had revealed significant “malfunctions” within the NATO alliance, including the gap in military capabilities between the United States and the other members, the lack of common purpose in carrying out the attacks on Libya, and the varying military capabilities of different members of the alliance.

“The cohesion of the alliance is in doubt when certain members criticise its actions and fewer than one in five participate in the Libyan air strikes,” a French military spokesman was quoted as saying. “It has been difficult to reach agreement on operational plans. There is a need to be reminded of the principle of solidarity. Operational capacities have not been honoured, and meetings designed to raise new forces have been one disappointment after another.”

The French criticisms echoed comments made by outgoing US defence secretary Robert Gates in a speech in Brussels in June, when he pointed to the “serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libya operation,” the need to fix “these shortcomings if the transatlantic security alliance is going to be viable,” and “the growing difficulty for the US to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden.”

In an interview with the London Financial Times on 28 June, Gates said that “Libya has just hammered home the consequences of many years of under-investment: if even our biggest allies are beginning to feel the stress and strain [of the Libyan campaign], where the hell would we have been if we’d actually had to deal with the Soviets?”

“For God’s sake, this is Gaddafi, this isn’t some big power,” he said.

Meanwhile, there have been few signs of movement on the part of the Libyan regime, with Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, telling French television channel TF1 earlier this week that “to tell my father to leave the country, it’s a joke. We will never surrender. We will fight. It’s our country.”

Warrants for the arrest of both Saif Al-Islam and Muammar Gaddafi were issued by the International Criminal Court on 27 June on charges of crimes against humanity carried out during the Libyan crisis.

While there seems little chance that the warrants will be acted upon in the immediate future, the Court’s action may for the time being have complicated the situation in Libya, observers say, reducing the chances of a negotiated settlement.

David Tresilian writes for Al-Ahram Weekly, where this article originally appeared.

 

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