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Reporting from Brussels

As attacks by the Libyan government on rebels escalated Thursday, NATO said it was moving more naval ships closer to the North African nation’s coastline but backed away from military intervention in the crisis.

There was little indication at the opening of a two-day meeting in Brussels of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers that the U.S. and its NATO allies were seriously contemplating imposing a “no-fly” zone over Libya or providing other military assistance to the rebels, even though the Obama administration and European governments have said for weeks that military options were under consideration.

“Planning will continue,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gatestold reporters after the two-hour session on Libya at NATO headquarters. “But that’s the extent of it with respect to the no-fly zone.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen bluntly blamed Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi for the continuing violence and said “time is of the essence” in responding to the crisis. But he and Gates emphasized that the alliance would only become involved if there were “demonstrable need” inside Libya, authorization from the United Nations and support from Libya’s neighbors for intervention.

Neither Gates nor Rasmussen defined what they meant by “demonstrable need.” But with the rebels’ military fortunes in parts of Libya looking increasingly bleak, it appeared to signal that neither the U.S. nor its allies were close to backing the rebels in their increasingly desperate fight with forces loyal to Kadafi.

“I can’t imagine the international community will stand idly by if Col. Kadafi continues attacking his own people systematically,” Rasmussen said. “But I have to say we do not look for military intervention in Libya.”

Since the beginning of the uprising in Libya three weeks, ago, the Obama administration and European governments have sought to keep alive the idea that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization might intervene to protect civilians and prevent indiscriminate slaughter by forces loyal to Kadafi. But with military intervention largely off the table, at least for now, the hope to intimidate Kadafi now rests largely on the threat that he and his supporters could face war-crimes charges if the crackdown becomes too brutal.

The U.S. could be forced to rethink its cautious response if there are large numbers of civilian casualties. The administration also could face criticism for failing to assist the Libyan rebellion, despite President Obama’s claim to be supporting the forces of reform sweeping the Middle East.

Britain and France are taking the lead in drafting a resolution at the United Nations that would authorize international military intervention, but China and Russia, both permanent members of the Security Council, are considered likely to oppose the measure. With the U.S. shying away from a military role, other alliance members are voicing increasing reluctance to back a NATO role in Libya.

“One thing is for the German government absolutely clear: We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.

The hesitancy by the Obama administration and other alliance members reflected continuing concerns about intervening in a potentially protracted civil war and, in the case of the U.S., about getting involved in another conflict when its armed forces are already heavily engaged in Afghanistan.

NATO officials said the additional ships being moved nearer Libya would monitor compliance with a U.N.-ordered arms embargo and would be in position to provide humanitarian assistance. The U.S. already has three of its naval ships near Libya. Which countries will provide the additional ships and how many ships will be sent have not been decided, said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.

Rasmussen noted that NATO had stepped up surveillance flights off the coast of Libya and was flying aircraft equipped with AWACS (airborne warning and control system) in the area around the clock.

“It does not mean that we are deciding to carry out specific operations today,” he said, “but it does mean that we are watching what the Libyan regime is doing to its people very closely indeed.”

 

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