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BRUSSELS, Belgium — NATO does not want to take the lead in a possible military intervention in Libya, but it stands ready to act if several conditions align, including an explicit United Nations request and the support of African and Arab countries, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday.

NATO defense ministers met Thursday to discuss their options in Libya, agreeing to move an unspecified number of additional NATO ships — which were participating in exercises in the central Mediterranean — closer to Libya and draw up plans for more humanitarian assistance missions.

But they also emerged with a tempered message: the situation in Libya does not yet warrant military intervention.

“I can’t imagine the international community and the United Nations [would] stand idly by if Colonel [Moammar] Gadhafi continues attacking his people systematically,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a news conference following the meeting. "But I have to say, we do not look for intervention in Libya."

Gates told reporters NATO wants to be ready to assist regional organizations, “rather than taking the initiative on its own.” He also said NATO will continue planning for a possible no-fly zone, should the U.N. ask for it, “but that’s the extent of it.”

Rasmussen said the ministers did not discuss air strikes against Libya, though Gates told Congress last week that a no-fly zone would require strikes against Libyan air defenses.

The repositioned ships under Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis will monitor Libya and watch for violations of the arms embargo put in place last month by the U.N. Security Council. Those ships could include additional U.S. or foreign ships, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. They will join the destroyer USS Barry, the amphibious landing ship USS Kearsarge, and the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock already in the area. Acting to enforce the embargo, however, would require a new Security Council resolution.

With reports indicating the rebels are being outgunned and outmatched by pro-Gadhafi military forces across the country, France took its own initiative to give Libyan rebels some political cover. President Nicholas Sarkozy on Thursday became the first head of state to meet with rebel representatives of the opposition’s Libyan National Council. France then declared the group to be the legal government of Libya.

Hours later, Clinton told Congress she will meet Libyan opposition leaders in Washington.

European Union foreign ministers also met in Brussels on Thursday, and EU heads of state meeting here Friday are expected discuss Libya. On Saturday, the Arab League is scheduled to meet.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle sounded a cautious note Thursday.

“One thing for the German government is absolutely clear: We do not want to get sucked in to a war in North Africa,” he said. “So we need to decide wisely and carefully that we do not get the absolute opposite of what we want: peace and freedom.”


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