Snap analysis: London meet papers over cracks in Libya coalition

By Adrian Croft

LONDON (Reuters) – An international conference tried to present a united front to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Tuesday, but the coalition remained divided over its aims in Libya and the legality of supplying arms to the rebels.

— At the London meeting, foreign ministers from more than 40 nations and leaders of the United Nations, Arab League, European Union and NATO heaped pressure on Gaddafi to quit and pledging to continue military action against his forces until he complies with a U.N. resolution to protect civilians.

— The meeting set up a contact group to provide political leadership to the coalition, a few days after an agreement was reached for NATO to take charge of all military operations.

— It backed an offer by Qatar to sell oil produced in rebel-held parts of Libya to pay for humanitarian needs.

— Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. view was that the latest U.N. Security Council resolution overrode the absolute prohibition of arms to anyone in Libya, “so that there could be legitimate transfer of arms if a country were to choose to do that.” But she said the United States had made no decision to supply arms, causing frustration among the outgunned rebels.

— British Foreign Secretary William Hague said arming the insurgents had not come up at the meeting but that giving people aid to defend themselves “in particular circumstances” was consistent with the U.N. resolution.

— French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said giving weapons to the insurgents was not part of the U.N. mandate, although Paris was ready to discuss it with coalition partners.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared to rule out the alliance arming the rebels, telling Sky News: “We are there to protect people, not to arm people.”

— The participation of the Arab League and a number of Arab countries gave weight to the argument that Libyan intervention has broad backing and is not simply a Western-backed campaign.

— But cracks persist within the international coalition, with Turkey worried that military strikes on Gaddafi forces could cause civilian casualties.

— Russia, which did not take part in the London conference, says the coalition has gone beyond what was authorized by the United Nations by striking at Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery.

— The African Union shunned the talks due to disputes between member states, although the coalition had been eager to get the AU on board, Juppe said.

— There remains little clarity over what the international coalition hopes to achieve and no clear plan to force Gaddafi from office, which the poorly trained and disorganized rebels are unlikely to achieve on their own.

— The United States and Britain deny they are seeking regime change in Libya but make clear they think Gaddafi’s time is up. Several European countries suggested that exile could be a way out for the veteran leader, though others want him to stand trial before the International Criminal Court.

— Developments on the ground in Libya have shown the limitations of air power as Gaddafi’s better armed and cohesive forces reversed the westward charge of the rebels.

— The failure to knock out Gaddafi’s heavy weapons firepower quickly could put pressure on the coalition to take more interventionist steps to help the rebels, such as supplying them with weapons. But it is divided about the wisdom and legality of doing so and such a move could drag Western powers further into a Libyan civil war — a fate they are desperate to avoid after their messy experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

— Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said on Tuesday the Obama administration had not ruled out arming the rebels as an option for trying to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

— Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebels, told reporters in London that if the rebels had more weapons “we would finish Gaddafi in a few days.”

— The London conference raised the profile of the interim National Council that has emerged as Libya’s best-known opposition group. A council leader, Mahmoud Jebril, spoke on the sidelines with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Clinton.

— Keen to attract more outside assistance, the council released a manifesto holding out the prospect of a “modern, free and united state” if Gaddafi could be ousted.

— The council’s declaration could go some way to calming concerns in the West about what kind of government the coalition may help to install in place of Gaddafi — after NATO’s top operations commander said intelligence on the rebels had shown “flickers” of al Qaeda or Hezbollah presence.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Snap analysis: London meet papers over cracks in Libya coalition