Libya: France and Italy to send officers to aid rebels

Rebel fighter near the frontline in eastern Libya Italy's defence minister said there was a clear understanding that the rebels had to be trained

France and Italy have said they are to send small teams of military officers to advise Libyan rebels who are seeking to topple Col Muammar Gaddafi.

French officials said fewer than 10 would be sent, while Italy's defence minister announced that 10 would go.

The UK said on Tuesday it was sending a similar team to the city of Benghazi.

Meanwhile, the UN has said the reported use of cluster munitions by Col Gaddafi's forces in the city of Misrata "could amount to international crimes".

"Reportedly one cluster bomb exploded just a few hundred metres from Misrata hospital, and other reports suggest at least two medical clinics have been hit by mortars or sniper fire," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.

Ms Pillay said the deliberate targeting of medical facilities was a war crime, and the deliberate targeting or reckless endangerment of civilians might also amount to serious violations of international humanitarian law.

"I urge the Libyan authorities to face the reality that they are digging themselves and the Libyan population deeper and deeper into the quagmire. They must halt the siege of Misrata," Ms Pillay added.

Tim Hetherington being helped from a battle-scarred building in Misrata (20 April 2011) Tim Hetherington died in a mortar attack in Misrata, hours after this photograph was taken

Later, one Western journalist was killed and three were injured, two of them seriously, in a mortar attack in Misrata. It took place around Tripoli Street, which forms part of the frontline.

The dead man has been named as Tim Hetherington, 41, a photojournalist and Oscar-nominated filmmaker who had dual British and American nationality.

Doctors at the city's hospital told the BBC initially that two journalists had died. They also said six other people had been killed and more than 100 injured in other incidents on Wednesday. Many of them were shot by snipers.

One medic told the BBC's Orla Guerin that he and his colleagues were exhausted by death and by blood, and asked where the international community was.

'Real issue'

Inspired by uprisings in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, the rebels have been fighting Col Gaddafi's forces since February. The rebels, based in Benghazi, hold much of the east, while Col Gaddafi's forces remain in control of Tripoli and most of the west.

Analysis

The despatch of the military advisers underlines the growing concerns in a number of European capitals that the air campaign over Libya is not yielding the expected results. After more than four weeks of air strikes, Libyan government forces have not crumbled; the Libyan regime still seems firmly in control in Tripoli; and the rebels have shown very limited capabilities on the ground.

France for one wants to step up the air campaign, but it is clear that unless the rebels can be turned into a more effective fighting force, and without a genuine ceasefire, Nato air operations may have to continue for the foreseeable future.

The French, British and Italians are all stressing that their small deployments do not constitute "boots on the ground" - they have no intention of deploying combat troops. But some MPs in London fear that this is the thin end of the wedge and that the allies risk being drawn ever deeper into the Libyan conflict.

French government spokesman Francois Baroin reaffirmed that France had no intention of sending a military force to Libya, saying: "We do not envisage deploying combat ground troops."

However, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said the idea of such a deployment was "a real issue" that deserved consideration by the UN Security Council.

The BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris says that in France, as in Britain, there is concern about the Libyan campaign turning into an open-ended commitment as both governments push to its limits the UN resolution endorsing the protection of civilians in Libya.

The comments came as the chairman of the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, met French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, where he thanked the French "for their brave decision to support the Libyan revolution".

Mr Sarkozy said the rebels had promised to build democracy in Libya "by the ballot box, not atop a tank". He also pledged to "intensify the strikes", an aide said, although no further details were given.

Announcing that his country would also send military advisers, Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said: "There is a clear understanding that the rebels have to be trained."

He also said stronger intervention within the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1973 - which authorises "all necessary measures short of occupation" - might be needed.

British journalist James Hider in Misrata: "The rebels say they will fight until they die" (This video footage cannot be verified independently for authenticity)

The British team, which like the French and Italian teams is expected to comprise about 10 advisers, will provide logistics and intelligence training in Benghazi. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said it complied with the UN mandate.

A spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council, Mustafa Gheirani, welcomed the deployment of advisers.

"My understanding is that it will all be administrative help, nothing with weapons and nothing in the field," he told the Associated Press.

The BBC's Peter Biles in Benghazi says the rebels have shown themselves to be inexperienced and disorganised, especially on the military front, and they will be grateful for any help they get from Europe.

US officials meanwhile told the Associated Press that they had decided to give the rebels $25m (£15.2m) in "non-lethal assistance" after assessing their capabilities and intentions.

'Mountain towns bombarded'

Start Quote

Everything, especially the political reform, election, constitution, will be on the table”

End Quote Abdul Ati al-Obeidi Libyan Foreign Minister

On Tuesday, Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi told the BBC that the presence of foreign military personnel would be a "step backwards".

He proposed that there should be a ceasefire followed by an interim period of maybe six months to discuss democracy and constitutional reforms, and prepare for an election that would be supervised by the UN, as proposed by the African Union.

Misrata, Libya's third largest city, has faced weeks of heavy bombardment. Hundreds of people have been killed.

The Libyan government says it is trying to protect the citizens of Misrata and to help international aid organisations provide aid there. It also denies shelling densely-populated areas.

"We welcome any objective investigation of the actions of our army, our government and our officials," said spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.

Rebels in the western Nafusa region told the Associated Press that the town of Yifran had been under attack with rockets, shells and anti-aircraft guns since the weekend. Clashes were also reported in Qalaa and Nalut.

Map of Libya

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