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War enters new phase as US deploys Predator drones

The war in Libya looks to be moving into a new strategic phase as the United States deploys unmanned Predator drones in the country and EU officials discuss a possible EUFOR ground troop deployment to aid humanitarian operations.


Faced with a stalemate between anti-regime rebels and government troops, the United States has upped the ante by deploying Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles in the skies over Libya.

The first drone flights came on Friday, a day after France, Italy and Britain confirmed that small military liaison teams had been sent to advise the rebels in the North African country.

Predator drones have precision targeting that is “uniquely suited for urban areas”, according to General James Cartwright, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is this capability that could help tip the balance in embattled cities like Misrata.

The deployment of US Predator drones is likely a sign that NATO’s intervention in Libya is likely to intensify, according to Alexandre Vautravers, head of international relations at Webster University in Switzerland.

“Hellfire missiles are laser-guided, and they are far more accurate if that guidance can be given from the ground,” Vautravers said, adding that he believes as many as 75 NATO special forces troops may already be operating in Libya.

Military officers from European Union countries have been meeting in Italy to discuss the details of an EU operation – EUFOR Libya – that would involve deploying troops to support humanitarian operations in the country if requested to do so by the UN, the French foreign ministry confirmed on Friday.

“Any such force would need tactical intelligence, and for that, drones are essential,” Vautravers said.

Drones: value for money

Both France and Britain have stressed that they will not individually send ground forces to Libya. A heavy troop deployment is something these two countries, which have helped lead the air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi targets in Libya, can ill afford – and the mounting cost of the mission is likely one reason behind the drones’ deployment.

“France and Britain’s combat missions are costing hundreds of millions of euros a day,” Vautravers said. “Drones cost ten times less and are just as effective.”

The United States plans to maintain two permanent patrols of the unmanned aircraft over Libya at any given time.

The deployment comes after the United States handed leadership of the air missions over the war-torn North African country to NATO, and in particular to France and Britain, on April 3.

NATO has since launched hundreds more air sorties, but despite the bombardments and a no-fly zone restricting the capabilities of Gaddafi forces, the rebels have been largely unable to capitalise on NATO’s help to make lasting gains.


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