Britain and France hope to persuade members of an international ‘contact group’ meeting in Doha that Gaddafi must go if the Libyan crisis is to be resolved.
Representatives of the coalition of 20 countries participating in the UN mandated action in Libya are meeting in Qatar to discuss regime change in the stricken country.
And with the US seemingly determined to take a back seat in operations the discussion looks likely to focus on the extent of NATO’s military action. One military expert tells Channel 4 News that with the alliance’s discussions in stalemate, the best outcome for Nato would be for Gaddafi to back down.
This will be the third foreign ministers meeting since operations began six weeks ago. Britain and France are openly calling on the alliance to step up attacks on Libyan government troops.
The meeting comes as rebels in Misrata say they are making progress against government troops. A rebel spokesman who identified himself as Gemal Salem said; “The rebels are making progress in the clashes and we can see plumes of smoke rising from several (government) forces’ positions,”
According to Libyan State television, NATO has also carried out strikes on the cities of al Azizyah and Sirte today.
On Wednesday Britain’s foreign minister William Hague urged participating nations to switch their warplanes from enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya to attacking pro-Gaddafi forces on the ground, arguing the conflict would only end when Gaddafi was ousted from power.
Speaking about how the campaign would reach a conclusion Hague said; “it will end with the departure of Gaddafi, with a political process in Libya that’s a more inclusive process.”
Britain is also calling for a temporary financial mechanism to be set up to help pay for public sector costs in rebel-held areas of Libya. He told the Doha meeting: “we should … move forward quickly to ensure that nations wishing to support the (rebel Libyan) interim National Council in meeting its public sector costs can do so in a transparent manner.”
His comments were supported by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who told Doha the meeting: “The aim is very clear, Gaddafi must go but we need a political solution. We must keep up a strong and robust military pressure to convince Gaddafi there is no way out.”
But Hague may find it difficult to garner support for such a motion. While Italy has signalled that the option to arm the rebels is still “on the table” and is also in discussions to offer fighter jets to aid NATO airstrikes, Germany on the other had insists it is too early to discuss military engagement to support humanitarian aid in Libya.
The Netherlands, Sweden, Qatar and the UAE are also taking less aggressive roles in the conflict, and the question of the legality of arming the Libyan rebels would provoke enormous debate.
Area of control
As it stands rebel forces are firmly in control of areas such as Benghazi and Toburk but Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are besieging Misrata and Ajdabiya, where observers claim civilians are caught in an increasingly perilous situation.
Critics argue that Gaddafi’s pounding of the city of Misrata is evidence that the NATO mission is not upholding its task.
And the Libyan leader is growing wise in his tactics. Rather than risk putting his forces in open view of air sorties they are entering populated areas, becoming camouflaged and increasing the risk that any NATO military operation against them would result in civilian casualties.
In fact 160 sorties are being flown over Libya each day with 60-70 air to ground strikes being permitted- the same number as under coalition command at the start of the conflict. But with the US continuing to distance itself from the conflict and limit itself to a supporting role, any further military support would have to be found within the NATO alliance.
NATO took over command of the operation with the mandate to adhere to resolution 1973- to uphold the safety and protection of civilians.
Canadian Lt Gen Charles Biouchard, NATO’s operational commander has said: “As long as regime forces continue attacking their own people, we will intervene to protect them. NATO’s resolve is in its mandate to protect the civilian population.”
Alastair Cameron, Head of European Security programme at the Royal United Services Institute, believes the NATO operation has had it successes.
He told Channel 4 News: “The Security Council called for the protection of civilians and by averting attacks from the town of Benghazi thousands of civilian lives have been saved. But NATO is not, as a whole, keeping up with the pace and momentum that the early hours of the campaign should have dictated.”
Cameron continued: “This is not a bleak situation. These meeting are more often than not valuable in identifying the shifting sands that will bring the allies closer together or push them further apart.
“At the moment there is no sign that a second resolution is needed. NATO’s hope now will be that political pressure exerted on the Libyan leader will force him to step down and thus end the conflict.”
Prime Minister David Cameron is set to travel to Paris for talks on Libya with President Nicolas Sarkozy this evening.