NATO takes coalition helm as rebels struggle to regroup

The United States has handed over command of air strikes enforcing a UN no-fly zone and protecting civilians in Libya to NATO as anti-regime rebels struggle to regain their momentum against the better-equipped forces of Muammar Gaddafi.


American-led air strike missions over Libya come to an end on Sunday as the situation on the ground appears to be deadlocked between rag-tag rebel forces and the better-equipped government army.

US jets flew 24 missions over the North African country on Saturday before withdrawing those planes from the cycle of ongoing NATO strikes.

The responsibility for leading ongoing combat missions now shifts to NATO command, and particularly to France and Britain.

But this does not mean the United States is abandoning its allies to the fight. US planes can still be requested by NATO, although approval for such missions will have to come from Washington.

The United States will continue to fly refuelling and electronic jamming missions. Nine of its original 12 warships and submarines are still stationed in the Mediterranean.

Rebels weak and disorganised

On the ground, the rebels – despite their enthusiasm – are mostly untrained and uncoordinated.

Trained former members of the Libyan army are now more visible in the rebel front lines and a military council has been established in Benghazi – but overall, Gaddafi’s forces are better equipped and are more disciplined.

Without heavy weapons, the rebels have been unable to consolidate any of their gains, while the loyalist army has used artillery to devastating effect against rebel-held towns.

It remains unclear if Western governments are prepared to move beyond bombing Gaddafi’s military assets on the ground to providing arms and assistance to the opposition.

In a joint opinion piece in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Republican US Senator John McCain and Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent, said that the US should be offering a “more robust” aid package to the rebels.

“We are concerned that regional support will waver if Western forces are perceived as presiding over a military deadlock. We cannot allow Gaddafi to consolidate his grip over part of the country and settle in for the long haul.”

Defection of ex-foreign minister

Cracks in the Gaddafi camp

After some very high-profile defections, including Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, other Libyan officials said at the end of last week that they are trying to find a “mutual solution” to end several weeks of air strikes.

Former Libyan premier Abdul Ati al-Obeidi told Britain’s Channel 4 News on Friday that his country was “trying to speak to the British, the French and the Americans to stop the killing of people". "We want to find a mutual solution,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Libyan government last week rejected a proposal from the rebel Transitional National Council in Benghazi calling on the regime to withdraw from cities and to allow demonstrations. The Libyan regime denied that the proposal offered a truce and called the rebel demands "impossible.

"The rebels never offered peace. They don't offer peace, they are making impossible demands," government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. "We will not leave our cities. We are the government, not them.”

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