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British defense chief cites 'momentum' in Libya war

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) April 26, 2011
British Defence Secretary Liam Fox on Tuesday said that Libya's rebels had gained "momentum" on the battlefield and that Moamer Kadhafi's regime was on the "back foot."

After nearly three hours of talks at the Pentagon with his US counterpart, Fox painted an optimistic picture of the Libya conflict despite fears on both sides of the Atlantic that the war could turn into an open-ended stalemate.

With Libya's rebels saying they had pushed Kadhafi's troops out of the Western port city of Misrata, Fox touted "progress" in the war and that Kadhafi's regime had lost the initiative.

"We've seen some momentum gained in the last few days," said Fox, standing next to Gates outside the Pentagon.

"We've seen some progress made in Misrata. And it's very clear that the regime is on the back foot," he told reporters.

Both Fox and Gates defended a NATO air strike on Monday against Kadhafi's compound, saying the Libyan leader's offices were a legitimate target.

The British defense minister also vowed the NATO alliance was determined to stay the course in the UN-mandated air campaign, launched on March 19 to protect civilians against Kadhafi's forces.

"We understand our duty. And our resolve will not waiver, as long as that civilian population remains at risk from an aggressive and wicked regime, which has waged war on its own people," Fox said.

Gates, who had warned about the risks of intervention before President Barack Obama backed military action, struck a more cautious tone, saying the United States would continue to play a supporting role in the air campaign after having handed over control of the operation to NATO.

A day after allied warplanes struck Kadhafi's compound in Tripoli, Gates and Fox said that command centers for the regime's forces were legitimate targets but did not say the alliance was trying to kill the Libyan leader.

"We have considered all along command and control centers to be a legitimate target and we have taken those out elsewhere," Gates said.

Fox agreed and said that "as long as that government continues to target civilians, as Secretary Gates says, we will continue to regard all their command-and-control mechanisms as legitimate targets."

NATO hit Kadhafi's compound in Tripoli early Monday, in what the alliance called a "precision strike" on a communications center.

The Tripoli government said the alliance was trying to assassinate Kadhafi but NATO members have sent out mixed signals on the merits of targeting the Libyan leader since the air campaign was launched last month.

"We are not targeting him specifically," Gates said. "But we do consider command-and-control targets legitimate targets, wherever we find them."

The UN resolution approving military intervention focuses on protecting civilians against the regime's forces, but US and European leaders have made clear they want to see an end to Kadhafi's rule.

"The sooner that Colonel Kadhafi recognizes that the game is up, either today or shortly, the better. He is a liability for his people and his country, and the sooner that he gets this message the better," Fox said.

Kadhafi, meanwhile, remained defiant despite the bombing raids against his Tripoli compound and military hardware.

Amid a bloody crackdown against civilian protesters in Syria, Fox and Gates were asked why Western governments backed military intervention in Libya but not against the Damascus regime.

Fox said there were limits to outside intervention in Syria and elsewhere.

"We will do what we can to reinforce the values our countries share, but we can't do everything all the time, and we have to recognize that there are practical limitations to what our countries can do, no matter how much we would like to do so," Fox said.

Gates endorsed Fox's comments and said while the same Western principles on human rights and democracy should apply to all countries, each nation would require a "tailored" approach.

Gates also said the NATO-led intervention in Libya was backed by "unprecedented" diplomatic support from the Arab League, Gulf countries and the UN Security Council.

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