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The wreckage of a US Air Force F-15E fighter jet after it crashed near Benghazi yesterday. The fighter jet crashed in Libya after apparent mechanical failure. Its crew escaped safely.
SUHAIB SALEM
The wreckage of a US Air Force F-15E fighter jet after it crashed near Benghazi yesterday. The fighter jet crashed in Libya after apparent mechanical failure. Its crew escaped safely.

Cracks begin in international anti-Qaddafi coalition

Third night of strikes on Libya as US jet crashes while wrangling continued among international allies over the control and scope of the operation against the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi.

Divisions among international coalition and Nato countries over the air and missile strikes launched against Col Muammar Qaddafi's regime escalated yesterday as wrangling continued over the control and scope of the operation.

In a third night of strikes on Libyan targets, the UN-sanctioned campaign suffered its first military setback when a US F-15E fighter jet crash-landed near the second largest city, Benghazi.

US officials said the plane had suffered engine failure. The two crew members ejected before impact and were said to be safe in American hands after a US search and rescue operation and help from anti-Qaddafi rebels.

The continuing operations have sparked growing unease among some members of the European, Arab and American coalition involved in enforcing the no-fly zone and the protection of civilians considered under threat from Libyan forces.

Although the UN resolution authorised "all necessary measures" to protect the Libyan population, some countries have drawn a clear distinction between enforcing a no-fly zone and the bombardment of Libyan targets where civilians may be killed or injured.

Perhaps significantly, the focus of military operations appeared to be shifting from direct strikes to keeping Libyan aircraft grounded.

Yesterday the US president, Barack Obama, eager to hand over command of the operation, urged the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by telephone to soften his opposition to Nato taking over control.

Mr Erdogan, who has been sharply critical of the prominent role played by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, had stressed that Turkey would endorse Nato involvement, which requires unanimous approval, only if key conditions were met.

Turkey has called for an exclusively humanitarian mission in Libya under UN control. "Turkey will never be a side directing weapons against the Libyan people," Mr Erdogan, who has personally appealed to Col Qaddafi to stand down, told a meeting of parliamentary deputies of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara.

Mr Erdogan has suggested that the leading role assumed by Mr Sarkozy was linked to desire to boost lowly opinion poll ratings with French presidential elections only a year away.

In Italy, where a flood of Libyan refugees is feared, Gianpiero Cantoni, head of the senate's defence committee, was quoted as saying French policy appeared to be motivated by a desire to secure oil contracts with a future Libyan government. An Italian official has also been reported as describing the US-French-British command of military operations as "anarchic".

Col Qaddafi's aides have lost no time in exploiting such concerns and the appearance of cracks in the united front against his regime.

His government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said in a British TV interview yesterday that strikes on "civilian and quasi-military" locations east and west of the capital Tripoli had claimed the lives of non-combatants.

"The British government is killing more civilians to protect civilians with the strikes and this for us is really bizarre,' he told Sky News. "You are accusing us of committing crimes against humanity and as result you are bombarding us."

He flatly denied that Col Qaddafi's forces had killed civilians, accusing armed militia opposed to the government of being behind such actions in Zawiyah this month.

In Abu Dhabi, Maj Gen Khaled al Bu-Ainnain, the former commander of the Air Force, said the UAE's decision not to deploy military forces to Libya arose from differences with the West over events in Bahrain.

The UAE had initially planned to send two squadrons of Mirage and F-16 fighter jets to Libya, he said, but announced on Monday that its involvement was confined to humanitarian aid.

Gen al Bu-Ainnain said the differences stemmed from a belief in the Gulf that Iran was interfering in Bahrain and instigating protesters.

The retired air force general, who made his comments at a conference at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, stressed that he was not speaking in any official capacity.

Late yesterday night, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, told reporters that "the UAE is fully engaged with humanitarian operations. The UAE remains committed to the importance of action in support of UN resolution 1973."

Speaking of the situation in Bahrain, Sheikh Abdullah added that "the UAE, and the GCC remain committed to supporting the initiative being led by His Highness Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain. The support from the international community, and in particular the United States, for that process, can only have a positive effect."

In London, media quoted government sources saying more Arab involvement was expected as enforcement continued.

Maj Gen John Lorimer, the UK defence spokesman, said Qaddafi loyalists had burnt a mosque after seizing control in Zawiyah, illustrating the "depths to which his forces are prepared to sink".

Gen Lorimer expressed satisfaction with the results of the coalition operation so far. "It would not be wise to disclose to Col Qaddafi precisely how well we believe we have performed in degrading his command and control networks and his integrated air defences," he said. "But … we have the best possible indications that this operation is having a very real effect."

Gen Lorimer, who delivered his assessments without then taking questions from reporters, appeared to be stressing unity in the face of reports to the contrary.

The British government has also been at pains to downplay conflicting suggestions on whether Col Qaddafi is seen as a target of military operations. The Libyan president's compound in central Tripoli was hit by missiles on Sunday night.

Nick Harvey, the UK armed forces minister, said Britain would like to see him out of power "because it is hard to see a future for Libya while he is still there". But that was not the objective of the coalition's actions, which were to protect the civilian population.

Gen Carter Ham, the head of US Africa Command, which remains in overall control of the operation pending an expected change, has stressed that he has no mission to attack Col Qaddafi.

"We are not seeking his whereabouts or anything like that," he said.

He acknowledged that the limited scope of the operation could produce stalemate. "I have a very discreet military mission, so I could see accomplishing the military mission and the current leader would remain the current leader," he said. "I don't think anyone would say that is ideal."

crandall@thenational.ae

kshaheen@thenational.ae

* Colin Randall reported from France and Kareem Shaheen from Abu Dhabi. With additional reporting by Thomas Seibert in Turkey

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