ABU DHABI // The UAE will send 12 warplanes to help enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, becoming the second Arab state to provide military support to the coalition's intervention against Col Muammar Qaddafi's regime.
The UAE will send six Mirage and six F-16 fighter jets to the country, according to a statement released yesterday by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The move isthe biggest military contribution yet by an Arab country to the operation, which is the most serious challenge to Col Qaddafi's four-decade rule.
Sheikh Abdullah said the decision was an extension of the UAE's commitment to humanitarian operations in Libya.
"As an extension of those humanitarian operations the UAE Air Force has committed six F-16 and six Mirage aircraft to participate in the patrols that will enforce the no-fly zone now established over Libya," he said.
A UN Security Council resolution issued last week authorised the use of military force to enforce a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" short of a ground invasion of Libya to protect civilians, as fears grew of an imminent onslaught by pro-Qaddafi forces on rebel-held cities.
Arab support was seen as crucial to the operation to underscore the coalition and cast it as a truly international effort, not a western intervention that could be used as a propaganda tool by Col Qaddafi.
The UAE set up refugee camps on the Tunisian border with Libya and has sent humanitarian aid to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold.
Sheikh Abdullah said the UAE's participation in the no-fly zone would commence in the "coming days", but gave no specific date for the deployment.
In a response to the UAE's announcement, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said: "We welcome this important step. It underscores both the breadth of this international coalition and the depth of concern in the region for the plight of the Libyan people."
The White House also welcomed the UAE's decision. "This critical participation by the UAE further underscores the broad, international support for the protection of the Libyan people," it said.
"The UAE has been a leader on this issue within the Gulf Co-operation Council and the Arab League. We look forward to continuing to work closely with the UAE and all our regional and international partners."
The UAE, along with the GCC, led Arab calls for the imposition of a no-fly zone, becoming the first Arab bloc to explicitly call for the measure. It was followed by similar declarations from the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
"Gulf states need to take the lead for a very simple reason," said Dr Mustafa Alani, the director of the security and terrorism programme at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai. "We have a huge vacuum in Arab leadership."
Western diplomatic sources said the announcement was important because it involved a significant military commitment - the largest yet pledged by an Arab state - and because it may encourage other Arab nations like Jordan to pledge military support.
"It will encourage others to follow," said one diplomatic source.
But Dr Alani cast doubt on whether other Arab states could contribute meaningfully to the coalition. Arab powers were caught up in internal difficulties or regional unrest, he said, with Egypt struggling in the aftermath of its revolution and Saudi Arabia intervening in Bahrain and contending with an unstable Yemen on its border.
But there was a "genuine belief in the need to remove a regime like Qaddafi's" within the GCC, said Dr Alani, adding that the Libyan leader was a liability for his people and for the broader Arab world.
The Gulf states, as major buyers of western armaments, are positioned to work with the coalition and can make use of the same maintenance facilities and bases, boosting interoperability. Their planes can "speak with each other", said Dr Alani.
There have been intense diplomatic efforts and "correspondence at the highest levels" between the UAE and leadership in the West about the country's participation, a diplomatic source said.
On Tuesday, the US vice president Joseph Biden discussed the situation in Libya and the region with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
"The vice president expressed his strong appreciation for the UAE's significant humanitarian contribution to the international effort on Libya," said a White House statement.
"We have always said that Arab leadership and participation is crucial," Mrs Clinton said yesterday. "The Arab League showed that leadership with its pivotal statement on Libya. We are deeply appreciative of their continuing contributions."
Qatar also dispatched two warplanes and two military transport planes to Libya as part of the coalition.