NAPLES, Italy — NATO’s commander for Libya deflected suggestions Monday that international airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces were essentially providing air cover for advancing rebels, insisting that the military alliance’s mission is purely designed to protect civilians.
Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada told a press conference that the alliance was in the process of taking over command from the U.S.-led operation after NATO’s 28 members agreed Sunday to the transition. He declined to say how long it would take, saying it was complex and still being co-ordinated, though officials in Brussels have said it would be a few days.
The move effectively means that once the transition is complete, NATO could bomb Gadhafi’s forces if they are threatening to harm civilian populations. International airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi’s forces, allowing rebels to advance near Gadhafi’s stronghold of Sirte after appearing at the brink of defeat.
The U.N. Security Council authorized countries to take all necessary measures to protect civilians in Libya. But critics have said the military campaign goes far beyond what was authorized: On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the international air campaign breached the U.N. resolution and amounted to international interference in what he called Libya’s civil war.
Asked where NATO drew the line between protecting the civilians and aiding rebels, Bouchard said his mission was clear:
“Our goal is to protect and help the civilians and population centres under the threat of attack,” he said.
He declined to elaborate on what his rules of engagement were or how he reconciled NATO’s stated mission not to take sides in the conflict, saying only that every decision was designed to limit civilian casualties.
In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu noted that the allied operation was launched in response to “the systematic attacks by Col. Gadhafi against his own people.”
“That is how this all started, we have to remember that,” she said.
She noted that the transition from the U.S.-led force to NATO command would last “a couple of days,” and said nations were still assigning military units and equipment to NATO authority.
But a diplomat at NATO headquarters, who spoke condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said most member nations represented in the alliance’s governing body had shown little enthusiasm for anything other than the minimal use of force against ground targets.
NATO officials have said the alliance’s operations, approved for up to three months, could be extended if necessary.
Several NATO countries have said they would impose conditions — known as caveats — on the use of their air and naval forces. Some, like the Netherlands, have said they will only take part in air patrols but would not participate in attacks on ground targets.
In Afghanistan, NATO commanders have bitterly complained about the existence of national caveats, blaming them for hampering counterinsurgency operations and creating tensions within the alliance.
NATO is assuming full command of the operation as ministers from the alliance and countries outside it head to London on Tuesday to co-ordinate strategy on Libya. France, which took the early lead in Libya by launching the first airstrikes and giving diplomatic recognition to the rebels, has proposed the creation of a political steering committee to oversee operations.
Asked how any decisions from Tuesday’s meeting would affect NATO’s chain of command, Bouchard said: “I will be watching it with great interest, and no doubt my commanders will.”
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday Royal Air Force pilots destroyed 22 of Gadhafi forces’ tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy guns over the weekend around Ajdabiya and Misrata.
On Monday, British pilots flew “deep into the desert” to destroy ammunition bunkers, with first intelligence indicating the bunkers were destroyed, he said.
In Brussels, Lungescu said the London conference will put in place a steering committee to take over control of the operation from NATO.
“We expect this conference to provide broad political framework to ensure there are guidelines for a peaceful solution in Libya,” she said. But she stressed that the North Atlantic Council — NATO’s highest decision-making body — “will remain in day-to-day control of military operations in close co-operation with partners in the region.”
Lungescu said the conference could put in place an arrangement similar to the Peace Implementation Council used for Bosnia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.
That council was created in 1995 with the aim of mobilizing international support for the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the Bosnian War, comprising 55 governments and international agencies. It mainly dealt with economic issues, strengthening Bosnian government institutions and encouraging the return of tens of thousands of refugees and displaced persons.
Since March 17 when the Security Council adopted its resolution on Libya, NATO has been moving gradually but steadily to implement it.
Five days later, the alliance launched a naval operation to cut the flow of weapons to Libya by sea. On Thursday, NATO’s governing body decided to enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya. This went into effect on Sunday, the same day that the alliance approved taking on the protection of civilians in coming days, effectively authorizing the bombing of Gadhafi’s forces.