No-fly zone prospects fade

By Alex Stevenson

Preparations are continuing for a no-fly zone over Libya, but the UK government’s rhetoric is shifting back towards non-military pressure on Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

The North Atlantic Council tasked Nato military authorities with providing a range of plans, including the implementation of a no-fly zone, earlier.

After US defence secretary Robert Gates criticised “loose talk” among the US’ allies about a no-fly zone, the UK government has slowly shifted its emphasis back to other means of tackling Colonel Gaddafi.

“We should continue to tighten the pressures on what remains of the regime… to convince more and more people their future does not lie with Gaddafi,” one senior British government official said.

Britain is only now likely to back a no-fly zone if Col Gaddafi resorts to more extreme measures to confront rebel forces – like the use of helicopter gunships against protesting civilians, for example.

The past few days have seen the development of a front line in Libya as rebel forces, with inferior weaponry but superior morale, take on those loyal to Col Gaddafi.

Reports of fighting emerged today as rebel forces advanced. In the capital Tripoli security forces used tear gas against a large anti-Gaddafi protest.

But the British government is struggling to establish effective reports of the position on the ground in much of Libya because of the unprecedented lack of access. Even organisations like the Red Cross have been denied entry, which officials say reflects on the Gaddafi regime.

Rebel-held towns like Zawiyah and Misrata, surrounded by loyal towns and therefore vulnerable to food shortages, are of particular concern.

Earlier today a second UK plane carrying tents and blankets was despatched from Dubai for the Libyan border.

International development secretary Andrew Mitchell, who is visiting the refugee camps on the Libyan-Tunisian border near Ras Ajdir, said two British air traffic controllers would be despatched to assist at the increasingly pressured Djerba airport.

Britain is continuing its three chartered planes flying in rotation to carry people away from the camps and back to Cairo. There have been 12 flights in total so far. These are set to continue into the weekend.

But their contribution will only make a small dent in the 179,925 refugees who have built up, fleeing the violence in Libya as forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi struggle against undisciplined but spirited rebels.

The second batch of aid from Dubai will deliver 2,000 blankets and 1,100 tents, providing shelter for 5,500 people.

“Britain will do everything possible to give those who are stranded shelter and get them back to their homes as quickly as possible,” Mr Mitchell said.

“The extraordinary support and generosity from the Tunisian authorities and local people has significantly eased the position on the ground, but we need to prepare for further surges of people who may be on the other side of the border.”

Department for International Development (DfID) figures are clear that the current state of affairs does not yet represent a humanitarian crisis.

There are fears that without strong preparation the situation could deteriorate, however. “If we don’t prepare we could be caught out,” one DfID official said.