Declare Misrata A Safe Haven

Article on Libya by The Rt Hon Lord Owen Published in the The Times Tuesday, 19 April 2011

When I first advocated on Monday, 21 February a no-fly-zone over Libya to protect Libyan citizens from the overwhelming military superiority of the Gaddafi regime, liberation forces were in control of most of the cities and towns that bordered the Mediterranean coast apart from Tripoli.

Slowly but remorselessly Gaddafi forces began to win back territory as the world waited and watched.  Many derided even the concept of a no-fly-zone but when Benghazi was on the point of being taken by the Gaddafi forces and when the Arab League was urging Western nations to act, the UN Resolution was passed in New York on 17 March and French planes fortunately went in and prevented Benghazi becoming a bitter battleground. This was followed by an astoundingly successful targeted cruise missile attack mainly by the US forces on key military installations. Almost anyone other than Gaddafi would have realised the game was up but he has not been ruler of Libya for over 40 years for nothing.  This was a man who after all had withstood air attacks targeted on his headquarters by President Reagan and which in one raid killed a young relative. He was surprised that Russia and China had not protected him in the Security Council and exercised their veto.  But he saw the weaknesses and the ambiguities in Resolution 1973 and apart from launching a propaganda exercise he regrouped his military forces and waited.

While his forces were also being pounded by the air by American close support aircraft there was little he could do but appeal to African leaders to come to his help politically, leaders to whom he had given over the years huge financial support.  Predictably this is exactly what they did and they flew into Tripoli and Benghazi with a wholly one-sided ceasefire proposal that was not surprisingly rejected by the National Liberation Front.  Meanwhile, America had passed over command and control to NATO and for reasons that have yet to be fully understood there was an undoubted reduction in the tempo of NATO’s air attack.  Perhaps it was because there were much fewer targets, perhaps it was because Gaddafi forces concentrated on a few towns like Misrata, slowly creeping forward with artillery, mortar and tanks which were shielded because they were actually operating within built up areas and attacks on them from the air risked collateral civilian damage.  Gradually we realised too how inadequate our own forces were.  No HMS Ark Royal and sea harriers to complement the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.  Our sophisticated Typhoon bombers with insufficient training and equipment. One could go on about the problems associated with the NATO response but this is dangerous retrospection.

We must focus on the here and now.  The town of Misrata is about to be engulfed by Gaddafi forces.  It is time for the French and British to go back to the UN and ask for a Resolution to declare Misrata a UN safe haven and French and British forces be empowered in the name of the UN, not NATO, to push Gaddafi forces out of the town. There should be a clearly demarcated 25 mile exclusion zone for Gaddafi forces and beyond which French and British ground forces would not be authorised to go in defence of Libyan lives.  It could be argued there is enough wriggle room within the Resolution as it stands to act on such a humanitarian mission.  But so much has been said about not putting boots on the ground, that it would lack authority to act without seeking first UN authority.  Just like Benghazi was saved within hours so must Misrata and we have probably only a few days to enact such a Resolution.