By Elizabeth Pineau and Catherine Bremer | Reuters
PARIS (Reuters) – France is pushing for NATO approval to extend military strikes on Muammar Gaddafi‘s army to strategic logistical targets, to try to break a deadlock in Libya‘s civil war as the civilian death toll mounts.
The push comes as France and Britain, which are leading the campaign in Libya, struggle to get coalition partners to step up participation or contribute more hardware, despite pleas from rebels that civilians are dying in the besieged city of Misrata.
The United States and European NATO allies rebuffed French and British calls on Thursday to contribute more actively to ground strikes in Libya, and military sources say neither Paris nor London plan to deploy any extra aircraft.
France used military helicopters to fire on armored vehicles in its recent intervention in Ivory Coast, which sped up the ouster of former president Laurent Gbagbo.
But it has made no move to deploy them in Libya, where they would make easy targets for Gaddafi’s army.
France’s two amphibious assault helicopter carriers are currently on base in the port of Toulon and in the Indian Ocean, the Navy says.
While the focus will remain on air strikes from fighter jets, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said on Friday their target should move from Gaddafi’s military bases to logistics and decision centres.
Longuet told LCI television strikes should now focus on “military decision centres in Libya or on logistics depots which today are being spared.” A French military source said the next step was to try and get an agreement on this.
“We have already hit military targets. We want to hit more and more strategic targets,” the source said. “We have hit quite a few tanks and planes, we can continue on other targets. The idea is to weaken Gaddafi by hitting harder and harder … to strike where it hurts most but avoiding collateral damage.”
“Now we need the coalition countries to agree on other targets,” the source added.
NATO forces have around 195 aircraft, including fighter jets and refueling tankers, at their disposal for Libya operations, around half of which have been supplied by France and Britain.
Officials say seven of the 28 NATO countries — Britain, France, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and the United States — have been taking part in air strikes. Others are enforcing the no-fly zone without bombing or supporting it in other ways.
Douglas Barrie, a military aviation expert at London’s International Institute for Security Studies, said attack helicopters and armed unmanned aircraft, or drones, could be of use in Libya.
“The trouble is, most available drones are being used in Afghanistan and attack helicopters would be a potential escalation as they are vulnerable to ground fire from small arms and MANPADS (man portable air defense systems),” he said.
The French military source said France did not need to bring in more aircraft as the planes and missiles it has to hand would be adequate for small logistical targets. A British Ministry of Defense source said Britain did not plan to add planes.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain was talking to other countries about providing more strike aircraft.
“Certainly we are making a bit of progress on that and so I’m hopeful there will be more strike assets made available to NATO,” he said.
Longuet said targeting strategic military sites could avoid the coalition having to take the decision to arm the rebels.
“Our goal is not to organize a front, it’s that Gaddafi’s troops go back to their barracks,” he said.
A member of the opposition transition council told Reuters on Thursday the West must ramp up its operations and consider arming the rebels or sending in troops to fight Gaddafi’s forces.
Suliman Fortea said during a brief visit to Paris that arms were getting through to the rebels, and defectors from Gaddafi’s army were training them but more help was needed.