TRIPOLI — NATO
Wednesday extended its Libyan air war by three months and said the departure of Moamer Kadhafi is only a question of time, as the strongman’s oil minister reportedly defected to the rebellion.
Hours after NATO-led aircraft launched new raids on Tripoli, ambassadors of the military alliance meeting in Brussels decided to renew the mission for another 90 days to late September.
“This decision sends a clear message to the Kadhafi regime. We are determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
“We will sustain our efforts to fulfil the United Nations mandate” to defend civilians from Kadhafi’s forces, he said in a statement, adding: “We will keep up the pressure to see it through.”
NATO, whose current campaign expires on June 27, has intensified its air raids in recent weeks with daily strikes on command and control bunkers in Tripoli to prevent Kadhafi from crushing a revolt that began in mid-February.
Wednesday’s decision would give individual nations time to prepare their contributions for the next 90 days, a NATO diplomat said.
“There were very positive signs that nations will extend with the appropriate number of resources,” the diplomat said.
In Rome, news agency ANSA reported that Libyan Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem announced Wednesday he had resigned and left Libya to join the uprising against Kadhafi “to fight for a democratic country.”
“I can’t work in this situation so I have left my country and my job to join the choice made by young Libyans to fight for a democratic country,” he said in Rome, following weeks of rumours and denials about his defection.
“There is a lot of internal and external pressure in Libya right now… There could be many solutions, including a peaceful solution,” he said, according to the report.
Ghanem added though that he was not working with the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, the main rebel administration in eastern Libya.
Italy’s foreign ministry denied any role in arranging Ghanem’s presence in the country but welcomed the announcement, after eight Libyan military officers this week announced their defection at a press conference in Rome.
NATO’S Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels that Kadhafi’s departure is only a question of time.
“The question is not if Kadhafi will go but when,” Rasmussen said. “It could take some time yet but it could also happen tomorrow.”
He added: “I hope to see a solution in Libya before the expiration of the 90-day mandate.”
At a news conference in Tripoli, Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim warned the departure of Libya’s veteran leader would be a “worst case scenario” for the country.
“If Kadhafi goes, the security valve will disappear,” he said.
“Kadhafi’s departure would be the worst case scenario for Libya,” he told reporters, and warned of “civil war.”
In London, The Guardian newspaper reported former members of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) working for private security companies were in Misrata — the main rebel-held city in western Libya — advising the rebels and supplying information to NATO.
The former soldiers were gathering information about the location and movement of Kadhafi’s troops and passing it on to NATO’s command centre in Naples, military sources told The Guardian.
Defence ministry officials denied the private soldiers were being paid by the British government and insisted it had no combat troops on the ground.
The Guardian said the soldiers were reportedly being paid by Arab countries, notably Qatar.
Reports of their presence emerged after Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera on Monday showed video footage of six armed westerners talking to rebels in Misrata.
The head of the African Union Commission meanwhile voiced support Wednesday for Russian mediation of the Libyan crisis but insisted that Africa should remain a key player in finding a resolution.
“Anyone who can contribute to a resolution of the situation in Libya is welcome,” said AU Commission chairman Jean Ping.
“If the Russians can help find a solution, they are welcome. We can’t ask for anything better,” Ping told a news conference in Brussels after talks with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso.
Prodded by G8 partners at a summit in France last week, Russia, a critic of the NATO air war in Libya, agreed to act as a mediator in the conflict and openly called for Kadhafi to step down.
But Ping stressed that the AU cannot be marginalised in efforts to bring a political solution to the conflict, which began in mid-February when Kadhafi countered an uprising against his 41-year dictatorship.
“Libya is in Africa and we cannot find a solution by sidelining Africa,” Ping said.