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21st Jun 2021

Foreign ministers wary of EU military role in Libya

  • Libya from space - the EU mission awaits a green light from the UN (Photo: nasa.gov)

Foreign ministers have sketched out the basic outlines of an EU 'military-humanitarian' mission to Libya, amid concern about putting ground soldiers into a volatile situation.

The meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday (12 March) saw ministers discuss the so-called concept of operations (Conops) for the Eufor Libya mission, the first step in the planning of any mission which involves military assets.

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The Conops was not formally agreed due to last-minute resistance from Sweden, which said the move is premature pending a UN request for EU military assistance to deliver humanitarian aid or to help get refugees out.

Speaking to EUobserver on his way out of the meeting, Finnish foreign minister Alexander Stubb said the substance of the plan has been accepted by member states, barring a few technicalities, however.

"We are only in the planning phase now of Eufor Libya. The next step would have to be a request from the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) on opening or maintaining of humanitarian passages. It could be evacuations, but that request hasn't come yet. If that request comes, then we'll have to take more concrete measures. There are no decisions coming out of here today," he said.

Earlier in the day, an EU diplomat said France is "basically trying to get 'boots on the ground' via an EU humanitarian-military mission. But a lot member states are very reluctant in signing up to that."

But speaking after the meeting French foreign minister Alain Juppe ruled out "any military role" for the EU operation.

For her part, foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said "In support of humanitarian efforts, military assets are to be used very carefully." She said the wariness of foreign ministers and the UN was not "sceptical, it was right."

Another EU contact noted that confusion remains on what Eufor Libya will do despite the ministers' three-hours-long lunchtime debate.

"Some member states stress more the humanitarian aspects and do not want any reference to the security situation, others say the two are intertwined and press for the two to be mentioned," the source said. "It is a very unusual military operation - we don't know what we would be asked to do - so planning is very loose at the moment."

The ministers on Tuesday also adopted sanctions on 26 Libyan energy companies and met with representatives of the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) in Benghazi for a two-hour-long "coffee."

The NTC foreign affairs representative, Ali Al-Issawi, later told reporters that the EU and other international actors should do more to protect civilians.

"We ask countries from all over the world to support the [UN] resolution, mainly the protection of civilians. We have now about ten thousand killed by Gaddafi soldiers, we have about 20,000 persons missing whom we believe are prisoners in Gaddafi prisons. We have around 30,000 injured, 7,000 of them fighting between life and death. So we want more efforts regarding the protection of Libyan civilians against this aggression going on on the ground," he said.

France's Juppe seized upon the NTC meeting - an Ashton initiative - as an EU-wide "signal of recognition" for the council. But Sweden, among others, is wary of giving the impression the EU is closed to talks with other opposition players.

Juppe went on to criticise Nato for not doing enough to protect civilians, particularly in the port of Misrata, which is under heavy artillery fire by the Gaddafi forces.

"Nato is mainly using French assets, as we are the number one contributor at this stage. I hope others will follow suit. I have confidence in [Nato chief Anders Fogh] Rasmussen's capacity to gather all necessary assets. It is unacceptable for Misrata to be still subject to bombings from Gaddafi troops," he said.

"It certainly doesn't mean to engage in riskier operations, but to exert the maximum military pressure possible and strike military targets. If artillery is firing at Misrata, it means there is artillery which needs to be tracked down and annihilated."

Nato meanwhile informed the media that it had destroye four Gaddafi tanks and an ammunition storage depot.

"We're keeping pressure on to stop the violence," Charles Bouchard, the commander of the Nato-led operations said in a statement.

Correction: the original story said the Conops was formally agreed. In fact, new information obtained on 13 April said it was blocked at the last minute by Sweden

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