NATO flotilla to start patrolling off Libyan coast

NATO warships will begin patrolling off Libya's coast to enforce the U.N. arms embargo Wednesday, as the alliance appeared set to assume responsibility for the no-fly zone over the North African nation to protect civilians.

Diplomats said an agreement is gradually emerging about how NATO would take responsibility for the flight ban, after the United States — which has effectively commanded the operation until now — reiterated that it was committed to the transition.

The compromise proposal would see NATO take a key role in the military operation guided by a political committee of foreign ministers from the West and the Arab world. Officials said the North Atlantic Council — NATO's top decision-making body which already has approved military plans for enforcing the no-fly zone — may decide to start them later Wednesday.

Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacon endorsed the proposal for handing over control of the Libya operation to a political committee. "We are comfortable with that," she said.

Military experts say coordinating the enforcement of a no-fly zone over a nation the size of Libya requires a specialized and experienced staff of several hundred people. The U.N. Security Council authorized the no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians after leader Moammar Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who wanted him to leave after 42 years in power.

The mission to provide round-the-clock coverage of Libyan airspace would require not just fighter planes patrolling the skies, but also attack jets armed with anti-radar missiles to suppress any threat from the ground. It would entail several aerial tankers flying circular patterns over the Mediterranean to refuel the warplanes. At least one and probably two AWACS airborne surveillance and control aircraft would also have to be nearby to monitor and coordinate the entire operation.

The United States is one of the few nations with the operational headquarters capable of controlling such a complex mission. None of NATO's European members have that capability and therefore rely on the alliance to provide it.

If NATO assumes responsibility for the enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya and the U.N. arms embargo against Libya, this would be controlled from NATO's operational center in Naples, a NATO official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to restrictions on talking to the press.

The allies agreed Tuesday to organize the naval mission, which initially will consist of two NATO naval flotillas that routinely patrol the Mediterranean. They are made up of two frigates, six minesweepers and a supply ship. The NATO official said more nations are likely to contribute warships in coming days.

The operation will be similar to a naval mission carried out by NATO ships in the Adriatic Sea during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia that also enforced an arms embargo.

Meanwhile, Turkey's president called on Gadhafi to step down as soon as possible, saying that would help stop the bloodshed. Abdullah Gul said Wednesday such a move would also "deny the opportunity to others to plunder" their country.

Turkey, NATO's sole Muslim member, has been insisting on a narrow military mandate for a NATO role in the military operation in Libya and assurances that no occupation of Libya will ensue.

In Moscow, Russia's parliament passed a measure calling on the U.N. to impose a cease-fire in Libya and stop the violence against civilians.

There are no reliable civilian death tolls from Libya. Rebels say over 1,000 people have been killed in a month of fighting, while Gadhafi claims the toll stands at 150.


Associated Press writers Daniel Woolls in Madrid, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Raf Casert in Brussels and Nataliya Vasiljeva in Moscow contributed to this report.