Nato allies divided on how to oust Qaddafi

Alliance insists it is committed to protecting Libyan civilians but calls for more nations to provide ground-attack planes go unheeded.

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BERLIN // Nato failed to resolve its dispute over Libya yesterday as allies resisted French and British calls for more nations to join the air war against the forces of Col Muammar Qaddafi.

Foreign ministers from Nato's 28 nations meeting in Berlin stressed that the alliance was committed to protecting the Libyan people from attacks by Col Qaddafi's forces, but there were no pledges of more planes.

The meeting coincided with diplomatic gatherings in Cairo and China that highlighted the extent of worldwide disagreement on how to proceed in Libya.

The fighting appeared to have claimed more civilian lives yesterday as rebels said women and children and Egyptian migrant workers were among 23 people killed in a rocket attack by government forces on a residential area in the city of Misrata.

A rebel spokesman warned of an impending government "massacre" unless Nato intervened more decisively.

Nato warplanes launched air strikes on Tripoli yesterday, and state-run Al-Libiya TV channel reported that there were casualties. Reuters correspondents reported hearing four blasts and saw plumes of smoke rising from the south-east of the city.

In Berlin, the Secretary General of Nato, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, sought to paper over differences by stressing the alliance's "strong and shared commitment to fulfil our UN mandate and protect the people of Libya."

"We will not stand idly by and watch a discredited regime attack its own people with tanks, rockets and snipers," Mr Rasmussen told a news briefing after the meeting.

He said Col Qaddafi's forces had become harder to target because they were hiding their heavy arms in populated areas. "To avoid civilian casualties, we need very sophisticated equipment so we need a few more precision fighters, ground attack aircraft for air-to-ground missiles."

Nato's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, Admiral John Stavridis, made the same point to ministers at the meeting, Mr Rasmussen said.

"I'm confident that nations will step up to the plate," he said.

Asked whether there had been offers of practical help at the Berlin meeting, Mr Rasmussen said: "I don't have specific pledges or promises from this meeting but I heard indications that give me hope. And by nature, I'm an optimist."

But the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, gave no hint Washington was prepared to get involved with ground strikes.

Spain said it had no plan to join the seven Nato states that have been involved in ground strikes, while Italy said it would need to hear convincing arguments for it to do so.

The French defence minister, Gerard Longuet, said this week that Col Qaddafi's attacks would not be stopped without US participation in strikes on his tanks and artillery, which ceased after Nato took command of Libyan operations on March 31.

Britain, France and Denmark are carrying out most of the ground strikes. A Nato official said on Wednesday the alliance was still short about 10 aircraft a day to conduct air strikes. A French official named Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden as countries that could do more to assist operations.

The French official said greater US involvement would help as European air forces conducting ground strikes lack low-flying A-10 "tankbuster" planes and AC-130 gunships that analysts say would be useful against Gaddafi's forces.

Nato ministers also seemed divided on whether to give the rebels weapons. Yesterday, the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said his government would oppose the idea, while Italy has been reported to be in favour.

Germany, which hosted the Nato meeting, abstained in last month's UN Security Council vote imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, and has steadfastly ruled out committing any forces to the campaign.

Berlin's stance has irritated its Western partners, especially France. But here too, officials played down their rift.

"Confidence has not been destroyed," said Mr Juppe, at a joint news conference with the foreign minister of Germany, Guido Westerwelle. "We agree on the goal. There are differences on how to get there. If Guido Westerwelle were of the opinion that Muammar Qaddafi should remain in power, only then would we have a problem."

Meanwhile, at a conference in Cairo hosted by the Arab League, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for a "political" solution and immediate ceasefire in Libya.

"We call for a political process so that the Libyan people can reach their aspirations," Mr Ban told a news conference at the end of the gathering.

In China, the leaders of five of the world's major emerging powers weighed in, saying the use of force in Libya and the Arab world should be avoided.

"We are of the view that all the parties should resolve their differences through peaceful means and dialogue in which the UN and regional organisations should as appropriate play their role," the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa said in a joint statement.