By Matthew Lee And Bradley Klapper
WASHINGTON – The U.S. and its NATO allies edged closer Monday to formulating a military response to the escalating violence in Libya as the alliance boosted surveillance flights over the country and the Obama administration signaled it might be willing to help arm Moammar Gadhafi’s opponents. Europe, meanwhile, kick-started international efforts to impose a no-fly zone.
It still appeared unlikely that U.S. warplanes or missiles would soon deploy in Libya, which may be sliding toward civil war, but the ongoing violence increased pressure on Washington to do something or spell out its plan.
The violence “perpetrated by the government in Libya is unacceptable,” President Barack Obama declared as he authorized $15 million in new humanitarian aid to assist and evacuate people fleeing the fighting. And he warned those still loyal to Gadhafi that they will be held to account for a violent crackdown that continued Monday with warplanes launching multiple airstrikes on opposition fighters seeking to advance on Tripoli.
“I want to send a very clear message to those who are around Col. Gadhafi,” Obama told reporters in the Oval Office alongside Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is in Washington for meetings. “It is their choice to make how they operate moving forward. And they will be held accountable for whatever violence continues to take place.”
The president spoke as U.S. military planes shuttled between Europe and Tunisia, ferrying in supplies and taking out some of the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled across the Libyan border. As international humanitarian efforts stepped up, Obama said NATO was consulting about “a wide range of potential options, including potential military options, in response to the violence that continues to take place inside of Libya.”
As a first step, NATO agreed on Monday to increase AWACs surveillance flights over Libya from 10 to 24 hours a day to give the alliance a better picture of both the humanitarian and military situations on the ground, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder told reporters. NATO’s governing body is meeting over the next two days to come up with contingency plans for military operations to be considered at a Thursday meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers in Brussels, he said.
Meanwhile, Britain and France were drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize a no-fly zone over Libya aimed at protecting Gadhafi’s foes from military air strikes, diplomats said. U.S. officials said a no-fly zone remains an option but suggested there was little enthusiasm for such a complex and expensive operation and questioned whether it would actually serve its intended purpose.
“When you really look at what is going on, we have actually seen a decrease in both fighters and overall air activity over Libya,” Daalder said. “The kinds of capabilities that are being used to attack the rebel forces and indeed the population will be largely unaffected by a no-fly zone.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said a military response was no more likely now than it was before the surge in violence. But, he said arming the rebels was a possibility even as officials denied a report that the U.S. had asked Saudi Arabia to provide weapons to rebels fighting Gadhafi and other officials noted it would violate a U.N. arms embargo imposed on Libya last week.
“It is one of the range of options that is being considered,” Carney said of the idea. Yet, he cautioned that there were still many unanswered questions about what groups comprise those forces and whether it would be prudent to arm them.
“I think that it would be premature to send a bunch of weapons to a post office box in eastern Libya. We need to not get ahead of ourselves in terms of the options we’re pursuing,” Carney said.
At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley pointed out that arming the rebels would be illegal unless the U.N. arms embargo were modified or lifted.
“There is an arms embargo that affects Libya, which means it’s a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya,” he said. “That is not permitted. But, depending on how events unfold, there are a wide range of options available to the international community.”
Hundreds of people have died since Libya’s uprising began, although tight restrictions on media make it nearly impossible to get an accurate tally.
The U.S. and United Nations have imposed sanctions on Gadhafi’s regime, and U.S. military forces have also moved closer to Libya’s shores to back up demands that Gadhafi step down.