Tripoli, July 01: Russia accused France on Thursday of committing a “crude violation” of a U.N. weapons embargo by arming Libyan rebels, a stance which could also cause unease within the Western alliance bombing to remove Muammar Gaddafi.
France confirmed on Wednesday that it had air-dropped arms to rebels in Libya’s Western Mountains, becoming the first NATO country to openly acknowledge arming the insurgency against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
France, Britain and the United States are leading a three-month-old air campaign which they say they will not end until Gaddafi falls. The war has become the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
Rebel advances have been slow, although the insurgents claimed successes this week in the Western Mountains region where they received the French arms, pushing on Sunday to within 80 km (50 miles) of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s main stronghold.
“We asked our French colleagues today whether reports that weapons from France were delivered to Libyan rebels correspond with reality,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
“If this is confirmed, it is a very crude violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970,” he said. That resolution, adopted in February, imposed a comprehensive arms embargo on Libya.
Paris said on Wednesday it believed it had not violated the U.N. embargo because the weapons it gave the rebels were needed to protect civilians from an imminent attack, which it says is allowed under a later Security Council resolution.
Although Russia is not involved in the bombing campaign, its stance could add to reservations among some NATO countries wary over an air war that has lasted longer and cost more than expected. Moscow could also challenge Paris at the U.N. Security Council, where both are veto-wielding permanent members.
France’s weapons airlift, while possibly increasing the insurgent threat to Gaddafi, highlights a dilemma for NATO.
More than 90 days into its bombing campaign, Gaddafi is still in power and no breakthrough is in sight, making some NATO members feel they should help the rebels more pro-actively, something the poorly armed insurgents have encouraged.
But if they do that, they risk fracturing the cohesion of the international coalition because of differences over how far to go in trying to topple Gaddafi.
Even before news of the French arms supply emerged, fissures were emerging in the coalition with some members voicing frustration about the high cost, civilian casualties, and the elusiveness of a military victory.
Gaddafi says the NATO campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing the North African state’s oil. He says NATO’s U.N.-mandated justification for its campaign — to protect Libyan civilians from attack — is spurious.
FRANCE ACTS ALONE
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made clear on Thursday the weapons airlift was a unilateral French initiative. Asked by reporters on a visit to Vienna if NATO had been involved, he answered: “No.”
“As regards compliance with the U.N. Security Council resolution, it is for the U.N. sanctions committee to determine that,” Rasmussen said.
The rebels are pushing toward Tripoli from the mountains to the southwest and from the coast to the east, where they have made scant progress advancing from their stronghold of Misrata.
In Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, which has been bombarded for months by Gaddafi’s security forces, six rockets landed early on Thursday near the oil refinery and port.
A Reuters journalist in Misrata reported no casualties.
Britain’s military said its Apache helicopters had attacked a government checkpoint and two military vehicles near Khoms, on the Mediterranean coast between Misrata and Tripoli.
Insurgents say Gaddafi’s forces are massing and bringing weapons to quell an uprising in Zlitan, the next big town along the road from Misrata to the capital. Rebels inside Zlitan said they mounted a raid on pro-Gaddafi positions on Wednesday night.
“(We) carried out a violent attack last night on checkpoints … and exchanged gunfire, killing a number of soldiers,” a rebel spokesman, who identified himself as Mabrouk, told Reuters from the town.
Le Figaro newspaper said France had parachuted rocket launchers, assault rifles and anti-tank missiles into the Western Mountains region, southwest of Tripoli, in early June.
A French military spokesman later confirmed arms had been delivered, although he said anti-tank missiles were not among them. Despite the diplomatic storm, the rebels encouraged more arms deliveries.
“Giving (us) weapons we will be able to decide the battle more quickly, so that we can shed as little blood as possible,” senior rebel figure Mahmoud Jibril told a news conference in Vienna.
The conflict has halted oil exports from Libya, helping push up world oil prices to near $112 per barrel.
Jibril said it may take years for oil exports to fully resume: “No, no oil is being sold. A lot of the oil well system was destroyed, especially in the east.”
Misrata’s rebels have pushed westwards out of the city but are blocked by government troops in Zlitan. In the eastern third of the country, rebel forces have been unable to advance west to the oil town of Brega.
Rebels in the Western Mountains advanced 30 km (19 miles) north toward Tripoli last week, but have since been held down by pro-Gaddafi forces around the town of Bir al-Ghanam, about 80 km short of the capital.
Nalut, a Western Mountains town near the border with Tunisia, came under artillery fire from pro-Gaddafi forces overnight, a rebel spokesman called Mohamed told Reuters.
“Two (rockets) hit the town center while the rest landed on farmland surrounding the town,” he said.