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International conference in London plots Libya future

A few representatives of the rebels fighting Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi hovered on the fringes of the talks. Their absence from the meetings reflected how politically delicate the crisis remains.

March 30, 2011|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times
  • Smoke billows in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in the wake of unidentified explosions.
Smoke billows in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, in the wake of unidentified… (Mahmud Turkia, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from London — With the U.S. handing off responsibility for military action in Libya, scores of diplomats and international officials gathered in London to start plotting the country's future and declared their resolve to maintain pressure on Moammar Kadafi until he stops attacking his own people.

But there were no Libyans included in the blue-ribbon guest list Tuesday. Nor was there a consensus among NATO countries taking command of the military action on its ultimate goal, or whether it would be enough for Kadafi to flee to another country rather than face prosecution.

A few representatives of the rebels fighting Kadafi hovered on the fringes of the high-level talks. However, their absence from the meetings was a reflection of just how politically delicate the crisis in Libya remains, and how much its outcome could depend on outside factors.

The conference was an attempt to forge greater unity of purpose among officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, leaders of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, representatives of the Arab League and the African Union, and about three dozen foreign ministers.

Besides agreeing to keep the pressure on Kadafi, they announced the formation of a "contact group" on Libya, a kind of steering committee to coordinate their political efforts, with the first meeting to be held in Qatar.

"We came to London to speak with one voice in support of a transition that leads to a brighter future for the Libyan people," Clinton said. "I'm very pleased with the progress we have made."

But as Washington passes control over the military mission to NATO this week, the conference papered over persistent divisions within the coalition regarding some of the methods and the ultimate goal of intervention in Libya.

Addressing the American public Monday, President Obama said the United States would move to a supporting role in the military campaign, and cautioned that Kadafi may be able to hang on for an extended period. The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing action in Libya permits military strikes to protect civilians, but not to force Kadafi from power.

Foreign air power has grounded Kadafi's air force and destroyed much of his armor. However, Libyan rebels have proved unable to move militarily without airstrikes and fighters on the ground have come to regard the foreign warplanes as the rebel air force.

Clinton said she didn't think the U.N. resolution would prohibit arming the rebels, but stressed that the U.S. had not decided to do that.

Disagreements over the mission have especially strained relations in Europe in recent days, raising questions as to whether participants will be willing to stick with the military campaign for a long period if Kadafi holds on. While two small Arab countries, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have assigned warplanes to the mission, most of the firepower belongs to NATO countries.

Britain and France have spearheaded the aggressive response to Kadafi, while NATO allies such as Italy, Germany and Turkey have urged caution.

On Tuesday, Italian and Turkish officials said they would press for a cease-fire between pro-Kadafi forces and the rebels in eastern Libya. Critics in both countries charge that the allied military intervention has overstepped its U.N. mandate and, in effect, sided with the opposition.

Italy and Turkey are also known to favor a resolution that would allow Kadafi to flee to another country. Britain, France and the U.S. have insisted that he face justice for alleged war crimes.

There were signs Tuesday that Washington and London have begun bending on that issue.

"We all agreed that Kadafi and his regime have completely lost their legitimacy and should be held accountable for his actions," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters after the conference, adding: "We're not engaged … in looking for somewhere for him to go, but that doesn't exclude others [from] doing so."

Clinton later echoed the notion, saying that all options were in play.

Perhaps the biggest rift in Europe opened up by the Libya crisis has been between France and Germany, longtime partners that have often cast themselves as the continent's natural power couple.

Both Paris and Berlin opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After being denounced for responding too timidly to the popular uprising in Libya's North African neighbor Tunisia, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has enthusiastically promoted armed intervention. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel has refused to participate in a mission directed by NATO, an organization founded in part to defend what was then West Germany.

"What's most significant here is that Germany has openly opposed both the United States and France at the same time. During the Cold War this would have been unthinkable," said Luis Simon, an expert at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels.

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