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Libya rebels coordinating with West on air assault

Leaders of the opposition national council, in Benghazi and in Europe, are helping allied commanders identify targets for strikes. Allied officials walk a fine line as the U.N. mandate bars them from actively helping the rebels in their goal to oust Moammar Kadafi.

March 24, 2011|By David Zucchino and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan rebel soldiers take cover during the siege of the eastern city of Ajdabiya. U.S. fighter jets launched 28 airstrikes in a 24-hour period beginning early Tuesday.
Libyan rebel soldiers take cover during the siege of the eastern city of… (Manu Brabo / EPA )

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya, and Washington — Leaders of the opposition national council in rebel-controlled eastern Libya say they are making regular, secure contacts with allied military representatives in Europe to help commanders identify targets for the U.S.-led air assault.

The contacts, conducted through the council's civilian representatives in France and elsewhere in Europe, are made by secure satellite telephone connections, according to spokesmen for the rebel leadership in its eastern base of Benghazi.

"There is communication between the Provisional National Council and U.N. assembled forces, and we work on letting them know what areas need to be bombarded," spokesman Ahmed Khalifa said in an interview Wednesday.

Photos: A meeting with prisoners held by rebels in Libya

The contacts, which began over the weekend, are evidence of cooperation between the Libyan opposition and the international military alliance that is waging air and missile strikes on Moammar Kadafi's command and control centers as well as other military targets.

They also highlight the diplomatic delicacy of the mission and the awkwardness of a military operation designed by governments with sometimes conflicting goals. The Obama administration and the Pentagon say the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military action in Libya does not include airstrikes specifically to aid rebel forces.

Photos: U.S., allies strike targets in Libya from air, sea

The White House declined to comment on whether allied commanders had established regular contact with the rebels to help identify military targets. A Pentagon spokesman, Marine Col. Dave Lapan, said there was "no formal or informal contact" between the rebels and American forces.

But Navy Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, chief of staff of Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn, said that though there was no official collaboration, information was being passed from the coalition to the rebels. "We have told … the opposition forces how to maneuver, and we have also told Moammar Kadafi's forces what they were expected to do in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolution," he told reporters.

Photos : A meeting with prisoners held by rebels in Libya

In addition, current and former American officials say that CIA operatives and equipment were sent into rebel-held areas to monitor the opposition forces' activity even before the air bombardment began. It's not clear whether those operatives are still in Libya, and if so, what their current role is.

Many, if not most, of the coalition governments want to help the rebels grind down Kadafi's forces. But since the U.N. authorized only a limited mission intended to prevent Kadafi from killing civilians, officials are unable to acknowledge that they intend to help the rebels.

Jeffrey White, a longtime Defense Intelligence Agency official, said U.S. officials "are trying to maintain this fig-leaf cover that we're not assisting their combat forces against the Libyans. But we're clearly creating conditions in which they can operate better."

"This is a very fine line," said White, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If they're passing information for targeting purposes, that's not necessarily formal coordination, but certainly cooperation for the same end." He added that gathering information was "clearly the right thing to do."

Leaders of the political opposition also have been using satellite phones "and other secure means" to help identify civilian areas under assault by Kadafi's forces, said Mustafa Gheriani, another rebel council spokesman.

"We tell them of urgent situations in areas where we need help to protect civilians being attacked by the regime's forces," Gheriani said. "The lines of communication are open."

President Obama has demanded that Kadafi withdraw troops that are attacking three Libyan cities where civilians have come under sustained bombardment. On Wednesday, alliance warplanes reportedly attacked government forces besieging Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli, forcing a retreat.

Gheriani said there was no direct military-to-military contact. He said rebel military officials pass on information to the council's political representatives in France, which has recognized the council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, and to council officials elsewhere in Europe.

"We have clearly established contacts, both political and military, but it all goes through our political leadership," Gheriani said.

Two council spokesmen said there was no coordination with alliance military representatives on rebel movements on the ground and no attempts by alliance officials to rein in the undisciplined and essentially leaderless rebel fighters.

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