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NATO agrees to launch 24-hour Libya surveillance

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 8, 2011

STUTTGART, Germany — NATO and its allies have agreed to launch 24-hour-a-day surveillance flights over Libya as part of an effort to get a clearer picture of the violence taking place in the country, according to the U.S. representative to NATO.

But while the debate continues on the merits of instituting a no-fly zone over the country, NATO still does not have immediate plans for deploying other aircraft to the region, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said in a conference call Monday with reporters. Nonetheless, NATO continues to plan for a no-fly zone operation should allies reach an agreement when they convene Thursday, he said.

“The decision was made to indeed increase the surveillance of the NATO-AWACS capability to make it 24/7, to have a better picture of what’s really going on in this part of the world,” Daalder said. “We’re looking at all the options that are out there in some — in a pretty focused way. But the most immediate options that are now most available and that we’re really looking at is how can NATO support the humanitarian effort that is ongoing by the international community.”

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be meeting with other defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where the unfolding crisis in Libya is expected to be at the center of discussions. So far, public comments by Gates have downplayed the likelihood of a no-fly zone being instituted anytime soon.

Yet as violent clashes continue between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and rebel groups, pressure is mounting on the Obama administration to do more. On Monday, President Barack Obama announced $15 million in new humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing the violence.

For its part, NATO has been drawing up plans should the allies come to an agreement on a no-fly zone. U.S. officials also have said that “all options are on the table.”

In Brussels, NATO defense ministers will get a chance to review some of the plans for how a NATO managed no-fly zone would function.

“I think the options that they’re looking at is a variety of different ways in which you could put a no-fly zone into place, but none of the details are yet available,” Daalder said.

According to Daalder, no-fly zones would not be a cure-all for the violence in Libya. While such an effort could neutralize Libya’s air force and limit its ability to launch strikes, no-fly zones “really have a limited effect against the helicopters or the kind of ground operations that we’ve seen, which is why a no-fly zone, even if it were to be established, isn’t really going to impact what is happening there today,” Daalder said.

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at it — and we are and we will — but it is not going to be the solution to every problem,” Daalder continued.

Still, some allies are pushing hard for direct military engagement. Britain and France are preparing a U.N. resolution seeking authorization for a no-fly zone. While it is unlikely to win approval — Russia has indicated it would reject such a measure — the effort offers an indication into France and Britain’s willingness to deploy more military hardware to the region. Some legal experts say if the UN is deadlocked, NATO could impose its own, which would be more controversial.

Meanwhile, NATO’s decision is increase surveillance from 10 hours per day to round-the-clock operations doesn’t translate into increased U.S. involvement.

“They’re NATO assets, NATO operated, NATO paid,” said Daalder, referring to the AWACS operated out of Geilenkirchen, Germany. “It just means a little bit more rotation, a little bit more flying than we were doing up to this point.”

vandiverj@estripes.osd.mil

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