Qatar Becomes 1st Arab Country to Fly over Libya

March 25, 2011 - 3:21 PM

Benghazi

An armed men stands among Libyan men attending Friday prayers in the main square in Benghazi, eastern Libya, Friday, March 25, 2011. The city saw many casualties during recent fighting in and around the city of Ajdabiya, where rebels clash now for weeks with troops of Moammar Gadhafi. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Tripoli, Libya (AP) - Tiny Qatar became the first Arab country to fly combat missions over Libya on Friday after NATO agreed to take command of the no-fly zone part of air operations against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

French and British jets struck Libyan military targets around a besieged eastern city, as talks in the Ethiopian capital to find a way out of the crisis produced a statement from the Libyan government delegation saying his country was ready to talk with rebels and accept political reform, possibly including elections.

The Qatari fighter jet flew its first sortie alongside a French jet on Friday and the United Arab Emirates pledged 12 warplanes to the effort to thwart Moammar Gadhafi. The international effort has no other countries from the Arab League, a 22-member group that was among the driving forces behind the U.N. Security Council decision to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

"Qatar has been a great ally from Day One," said Mustafa Gheriani, spokesman for opposition Benghazi city council. "It's an Arab country to be proud of."

The United States has provided millions of dollars in equipment to many of the league's countries, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Qatar has close ties to the U.S. military, a reputation for international mediation, and hosts the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera network.

"Having our first Arab nation join and start flying with us emphasizes that the world wants the innocent Libyan people protected from the atrocities perpetrated by pro-regime forces," U.S. Air Forces Africa Commander Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward said.

The international coalition confronting Gadhafi agreed to put NATO in charge of enforcing the no-fly zone, with Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard at the helm, and hammered out a unified command structure.

Despite the leadership confusion, Britain's senior military spokesman, said the mission was succeeding.

"We have not been able to stop all Col. Gadhafi's attacks, and we would never pretend that we could," Maj. Gen. John Lorimer told reporters in London Friday. But, he said, "They are losing aircraft, tanks, guns that they cannot replace. His ability to use these weapons against his own people is diminished daily."

NATO also heads the ship blockade, but British officials on Friday have refused to say whether NATO ships would patrol the rebel-held coastal areas in the east. A slide shown to journalists Friday seemed to underline the ambiguity of the naval arms embargo.

"The entire coast will need to be monitored," said Capt. Karl Evans, who briefed reporters at the Ministry of Defense in London. Bbehind him, a map of Libya visualizing the NATO blockade showed only the 600 miles (965 kilometers) of Gadhafi-controlled coastline highlighted in red, with the rebel-held east seemingly left out.

When pressed, senior military spokesman Lorimer intervened, saying that "we don't have those kinds of details here."

British and French warplanes hit near the town of Ajdabiya, destroying an artillery battery and armored vehicles. Ajdabiya and the western city of Misrata, in particular, have suffered because the rebels lack the heavy weapons to lift Gadhafi's siege.

Rida al-Montasser, an activist from Misrata, said Gadhafi forces fired mortars and RPGs from rooftops along a main street, hitting a market and a residential building. He said that rebels are trying to chase the snipers from rooftops, rounded up some 30 of the snipers so far and still searching for more.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a top African Union official called for a transition period in Libya that would lead to democratic elections, a rare rebuke from African leaders who appear to be pushing for political reforms that could lead Gadhafi's ouster.

African Union commission chairman Jean Ping said in an opening speech that the AU favors an inclusive transitional period that would lead to democratic elections.

"We are convinced, at the African Union level, that there is a sufficient basis for reaching a consensus and making a valuable contribution to finding a lasting solution in Libya," he said.

The statement calling for a transition toward elections is the strongest Libya-related statement to come out of the AU since the Libya crisis began, and could be seen as a strong rebuke to a leader who has long been well regarded by the continental body.

Gheriani, the opposition spokesman, said he has heard nothing about the meeting.

Libyan negotiator Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi blamed the the violence in Libya on "extremists" and foreign intervention but said the government was willing to consider talks. Rebels, who were not at the Ethiopia meeting, say they will not negotiate with Gadhafi.

We are ready to discuss what the Libyan people want," he said. "What kind of reform do they want? If it is elections we are willing to discuss about the details. We are willing to negotiate with anyone. These are our people. There is no division between the Libyan people; there is a division between extremists and the Libyan people."

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Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Benghazi, Libya; Pauline Jelinek in Washington; and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.