Defense Secretary Gates Defends No-Fly Policy

The most vocal critic of the coalition-backed military mission in Libya is now being forced to defend it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates — while traveling in Russia Tuesday — fielded criticism from his Russian counterpart, who accused the coalition of adding to the civilian death toll in Libya. The Russian defense minister also called for an immediate ceasefire. Gates strongly rejected the criticism and said the mission is sticking closely to actions authorized by the United Nations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Back when Senator Kerry was first advocating a no-fly zone over Libya, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed strong reservations about the idea. Now, Gates occupies an interesting position - the skeptic turned defender of the no-fly zone. Traveling in Moscow today, he rejected criticism from Russian officials.

NPR's Rachel Martin is traveling with the secretary and sent this report.

RACHEL MARTIN: This was a long-planned trip to talk about missile defense and the new nuclear arms treaty. But when the Russian defense minister publicly criticized the U.S. and its allies for killing Libyan civilians, Secretary Gates wasn't pleased.

ROBERT GATES: I'm a little curious, frankly, about the tone that has been taken. We've been very careful about this and it's almost as though some people here are taking at face value Gadhafi's claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I'm concerned are just outright lies.

MARTIN: A few weeks ago, Gates warned that a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya. Now that it's under way, Gates is dealing with the consequences and not only criticism from Russia, among the other big questions: Who's in charge of the operation?

GATES: This isn't a NATO mission. This is a mission in which the NATO machinery may be used for command and control.

MARTIN: Gates says he expects to be able to hand off control of the operation to an international force but he can't say when.

GATES: This command and control business is complicated. And we haven't done something like this kind of on-the-fly before and so it's not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.

MARTIN: U.S. and European allies would like Arab countries to step up. Right now, the only thing clear is that the U.S. is ready to step down or at least step to the side.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Moscow.

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