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International forces attack Libyan targets

A rebel celebrates the capture of a Libyan government tank on Sunday near the city of Benghazi Keystone

European nations and the United States have targeted the military of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi with air strikes and dozens of cruise missiles.

This content was published on March 20, 2011 - 10:53
Robert Brookes, swissinfo.ch with agencies

The strikes, in the broadest international military effort since the Iraq war, were aimed at enforcing a United Nations-mandated no-fly zone decided on Thursday last week.

They were a sharp escalation in the international effort to stop Gaddafi after weeks of pleading by the rebels, who have seen early gains reversed as the Gaddafi regime unleashed the full force of its superior air power and weaponry.

Forces from France, Britain, the US, Italy and Canada were said to have been involved.

Libyan state television claimed 48 people died in the attacks, but the report could not be independently verified.

“Crusader aggression”

The Libyan leader vowed to defend his country from what he called “crusader aggression” and warned the involvement of international forces would subject the Mediterranean and North African region to danger and put civilians at risk.

The US military said 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from American and British ships and submarines at more than 20 coastal targets to clear the way for air patrols to ground Libya's air force.

French fighter jets fired the first salvos, carrying out several strikes in the

rebel-held east, while British fighter jets also bombarded the North African nation.

President Barack Obama said military action was not his first choice and repeated that he would not send American ground troops.

“This is not an outcome the US or any of our partners sought,” Obama said from Brazil, where he is on a five-day visit to Latin America.

“We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy.”

"Fragile" UN resolution?

The Swiss newspapers on Saturday had warned that the UN resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya would still be extremely difficult to put into practice. 

“Gaddafi obviously counted on such a UN move,” commented the Bund newspaper of Bern. “Shortly after it had been accepted, the Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa announced a ceasefire.”

The paper argued that the resolution was “fragile” since only ten of the 15 members of the Security Council were in favour. Five members, including China, Russia and Germany, abstained.

“For the much-cited joint European foreign policy, Germany’s performance was no good omen,” it added.

Several newspapers mentioned the many risks that accompany the UN resolution. The Basler Zeitung of Basel, for example, made the point that those countries taking part in enforcing the no-fly zone would be responsible for the consequences and also settling the conflict.

It said “provoker” Gaddafi would do all in his power to draw the Europeans and Americans deeper into the conflict.

Little was known, it went on, about how trustworthy the rebels were. If there were Nato attacks in the country and civilians were killed, as was the case in Afghanistan, they could rapidly provoke anti-western sentiment, fuelled by Gaddafi’s propaganda.

Painstaking efforts

More or less the same point was made in the Berner Zeitung, which commented that the resolution was achieved only after painstaking efforts. Putting it into practice would be “extremely delicate”.

It also said that the resolution did not include ground operations because there was a big fear [in other countries] of being dragged into an “endless military adventure”.

It was now up to the international community to show how serious the situation was. Action had to be followed rapidly to restore credibility, it added.

Zurich’s Tages-Anzeiger described any action as “risky”. Not only could the civilian population be victims, but Gaddafi’s air defence systems could shoot down western pilots and use them as hostages. “It’s also completely unclear as to how long any action would last. The rebels, who are badly equipped, may need a long time to bring about the fall of this hated regime.”

Gaddafi as “virtuoso”

Two newspapers in the French-speaking part of the country put their focus on Gaddafi as a person. L’Express of Neuchâtel describes the Libyan leader as the “virtuoso of manipulation”.

It said that he knew only too well that countries which might be involved against him are already “bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan” and wanted to avoid being involved on the ground at all costs.

But it also has a warning: “Gaddafi has always known how to play for time, but this time everything seems to show that he himself may well have to be counted.”

The editorialist in the Lausanne newspaper Le Matin wasted no time in describing Gaddafi as “worse than Machiavelli”.

He had, for example, made fun of western powers for more than 40 years. “And once you think he’s knocked down, he can come back and surprise everyone.”

This time, however, the colonel had to be taught that he was “undesirable” and that he should “leave the stage”.

Swiss-Libyan relations - history

The first Swiss merchants settled in Libya at the end of the 19th century. Switzerland recognised the new state immediately after Libya’s declaration of independence in 1951. At that time there were about a dozen Swiss nationals living in Libya. Swiss geologists, technicians and other experts also settled in Libya as the oil industry in that country developed and prospered.

From 1962 onwards, the Swiss embassy in Tunisia represented Swiss interests in Libya. In 1965 a consulate was opened in the Libyan capital Tripoli, and an embassy was opened in 1968.

The temporary detention of Hannibal Gaddafi in Geneva in mid-July 2008 led to political tensions between Libya and Switzerland. The Libyan authorities reacted by taking measures against Swiss nationals and companies in Libya. On February 23, 2010, one of two Swiss citizens who had been retained in Libya was permitted to return to Switzerland; the other was released on June 13, 2010 and immediately returned to Switzerland.

(Source: Swiss foreign ministry)

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