NEW YORK // Cracks emerged in global support for attacking the forces of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi yesterday when the UN Security Council responded to allegations that France, Britain and the United States were too aggressively pursuing their North African offensive.
Diplomats met behind closed doors in Manhattan to discuss a letter from Col Qaddafi’s regime that complained of “military aggression” by the western powers launching air strikes on Libya and calling for an emergency meeting of the UN’s top body.
Council envoys agreed to discuss the letter, from Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kousa, during a meeting scheduled for this Thursday in which UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon will deliver his first briefing on foreign military operations in Libya.
While the alliance of Britain, France and the US remains solid, fractures are emerging in the international coalition that was hastily assembled to support UN Security Council resolution 1973 and saw French jets begin bombing Libyan targets on Saturday.
The 15-nation Security Council agreed last week to authorise military action among “all necessary measures” to protect civilians during a rebellion against Col Qaddafi’s 41-year rule and impose a no-fly zone over Libya.
The resolution was backed by the US, France, Britain and Lebanon and endorsed by the Arab League, but did not win universal council support, with five major powers abstaining from the vote in the UN’s Manhattan-based chamber.
They included two permanent veto-wielding members, Russia and China, who are typically loath to permit foreign intervention in domestic crises, and the increasingly influential temporary members Germany, Brazil and India.
The Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin on Monday called the resolution “defective and flawed” and likened it to “medieval calls for crusades”, although his comments were later dismissed by the country’s president, Dmitry Medvedev.
The UN resolution gained legitimacy thanks to backing from the Arab League. The 22-nation body’s secretary general, Amr Mussa, raised concerns on Sunday about civilian casualties and said air strikes went beyond calls for a no-fly zone.
"We are committed to UN Security Council Resolution 1973, we have no objection to this decision, particularly as it does not call for an invasion of Libyan territory,” Mr Mussa told a press conference with the UN chief, Mr Ban, in Cairo on Monday.
Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, told a meeting in Brussels that Mr Mussa’s criticism showed that Berlin was right to abstain during last week’s Security Council vote and warn of the dangers from military intervention.
“We calculated the risks, and when we see that three days after this intervention began, the Arab League has already criticised this intervention, I think we see we had good reasons,” Mr Westerwelle told fellow European foreign ministers.
The resolution allows foreign forces to stop civilian bloodshed in Libya but rules out a ground invasion and occupation. Opponents have voiced concern about western nations being sucked in to escalating conflict in another Muslim nation.
While the resolution was being drafted, diplomats said that Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan would provide Arab support to the western coalition with logistical, financial and even military assistance.
But Qatar is the only Arab nation among seven countries to have told the UN they will be involved in operations, reportedly supplying fighter jets. The UAE Government news agency, WAM, said Emirati involvement will be limited to humanitarian support.
The letter from Libya’s Mr Kousa claimed that “an external conspiracy was targeting” Libya and that the Security Council’s authorisation of military action to protect civilians had “paved the way for military aggression against Libyan territory”.
The foreign minister accused France and the US of bombing “several civilian sites, thereby violating all international norms and instruments, most notably the charter of the United Nations, which provides for non-intervention in the affairs of member states”.
Analysts have questioned the legitimacy of foreign forces protecting civilians in Libya while being unwilling to act against bloodshed in Yemen, Bahrain and Ivory Coast. Others warn that the resolution could prove unworkable if the Libyan rebellion drags out into a protracted civil war.
As the international military campaign to end the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's offensive against Libyan rebels entered its third night, coalition leaders, meanwhile, said military action would continue "for some time", but insisted every effort was being made to avoid civilian casualties.
Despite the satisfaction of the coalition with the progress of the campaign, Arab, European and American nations seeking to enforce UN resolution 1973 - permitting "all necessary measures" to protect those targeted by Col Qaddafi's forces - are acutely aware of the impact on public opinion of substantial loss of life among non-combatants.
France and Britain, which played prominent roles in convincing the UN Security Council to pass resolution 1973, claimed the action had already prevented a bloodbath in Libya's second city, Benghazi.
This view was supported by Abdul Rahman al Atiyyah, secretary general of the GCC. "What is happening now is not intervention; it is protecting the people from bloodshed," he said, noting that the UAE and Qatar were part of the coalition.
Libyan forces were reported yesterday to have withdrawn from Benghazi, leaving the city in the hands of opposition forces. French fighters had targeted a column of tanks and other armoured vehicles heading towards the city in the first missions of the operation on Saturday night.
The French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, was among those hailing the military operation so far as a success.
The British prime minister, David Cameron, told the UK parliament a desperate race to avert slaughter had been won "in the nick of time".
He said Libya's air defences had all but been neutralised by action he described as "necessary, legal and right".
An American commander said no Libyan military aircraft were known to have flown since the operation began at the weekend.
Earlier, Henri Guaino, an aide close to the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, said military action had virtually ended attacks by Libyan forces on civilians.
Mr Guaino reiterated that the objective was not to force the Libyan president out. "That's not in the UN mandate," he said on French radio. "It is the best result that could be reached, but the Libyan revolution belongs to the Libyans."
Libya claims scores of people have died and said a missile attack on one of Col Qaddafi's compounds in central Tripoli contradicted assertions that the resolution's objective was not to force regime change.
High-level military sources were quoted in the UK as saying Col Qaddafi, as head of the Libyan armed forces, was a legitimate target but missiles fired at the compound were not intended to kill him, only to destroy a command and control centre.
The suggestion that the coalition could have Col Qaddafi in its sights, also made by the British defence minister Liam Fox, was challenged, however, by the chief of UK defence staff, Sir David Richards.
He said the Libyan president was "absolutely not" a target and that to consider him otherwise was not permitted under the terms of the UN resolution.
Gen Carter F Ham, the US army's Africa commander, confirmed that an attack on Col Qaddafi was not part of the current mission.
Maj Gen John Lorimer, Britain's chief defence spokesman, said the coalition's desire to avoid civilian death and injury was exemplified by a decision to order Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 jets back to base as they flew to Libya armed with Stormshadow missiles.
Civilians had been reported to be in the vicinity of the intended target, he said. It was later reported that commanders aborted the mission after becoming aware that a group of international journalists was present in the area due to be attacked.
But Gen Lorimer said Tomahawk missiles had been fired successfully from a submarine in the Mediterranean. "Despite Libyan reports and claims to the contrary, we are not aware of any civilian casualties," he said.
Britain was satisfied its attacks and those of its partners had been "highly effective in degrading Libyan defences and command and control capability".
Gen Lorimer said the first wave of attacks by American, British and French aircraft had brought an artillery offensive by Col Qaddafi's forces on Benghazi to an end on Saturday night.
But 200 Qaddafi revolutionary committee supporters were later engaged in street battles with rebels, who reported that while shelling had ceased in Benghazi, attacks had increased elsewhere.
The coalition has said military action would not be suspended until Col Qaddafi complied in full with the UN resolution. Libya has twice announced ceasefires since the UN vote and on each occasion, it is alleged, broken them almost immediately.
with additional material by Reuters and the Associated Press