NATO TO Enforce No-Fly Zone Over Libya

That operation in Libya is not yet a week old, and the U.S. is starting to edge off center stage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a change in command Thursday: NATO will take command of the no-fly zone over Libya.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

From the beginning, the United States said it did not want to lead the military operation in Libya. That operation is not yet a week old. The U.S. is starting to edge off center stage. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a change in command yesterday.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): We have agreed along with our NATO allies to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO.

WERTHEIMER: But the handoff is not quite as simple as Secretary Clinton's statement might suggest.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to interpret. Good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Tom, what part of the mission will NATO take over?

BOWMAN: Well, NATO has agreed to take over the no-fly zone. And that's, of course, designed to prevent Libyan warplanes and helicopters from flying anywhere in the country. And, frankly, that's the easy part, because the U.S. and British missiles have already taken out Gadhafi's radar systems, his missile systems. And we've been told that no Libyan aircraft has actually taken to the skies since the no-fly zone started on Saturday.

So that leaves the harder mission: protecting civilians from tanks, artillery, gunfire, and then making sure the city of Benghazi isn't attacked.

WERTHEIMER: Well, so the question is, will NATO take that on? Is that what NATO said it would do?

BOWMAN: Well, at this point the mission's split. NATO, again, has agreed to take the no-fly zone but not the overall mission.

Let's listen to Secretary Clinton again.

Sec. CLINTON: All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission under Resolution 1973.

BOWMAN: Now, listen to what she said: develop an operations plan. That still hasn't happened yet. They expected it by the weekend, for NATO to take over the entire mission.

WERTHEIMER: So what role will U.S. forces play when command is handed over to NATO?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. will provide at least what's called unique capabilities. And that includes everything from refueling tankers, which are essentially gas stations in the sky; jamming aircraft - one is called the Growler; and then another special plane called Commando Solo - that's designed to send radio messages to Libyan troops, telling them to surrender.

But until NATO takes over the entire mission, you're also going to see a good number of U.S. warplanes, F-15s and F-16s, also taking part in this.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the Pentagon had a briefing yesterday. What came out of that?

BOWMAN: Well, Admiral Bill Gortney talked to reporters and he was talking about what Libyan forces have to do not to get attacked. And he said they have to abandon their equipment. He also said if any forces are heading back to Tripoli, don't drive your tank home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Tom, this morning the United States, Britain and France were all active over Libya, looking at ground forces. As command is handed over to NATO, do you expect aggressive attacks on Libyan ground forces to continue?

BOWMAN: Well, they've already been attacking armored forces of Gadhafi around the city of Benghazi. We do expect that to continue if Gadhafi's forces keeps moving towards some of these other cities.

WERTHEIMER: Can you give us a sense of what's happening on the ground in Libya's main cities?

BOWMAN: Well, there still is quite a bit of fighting in the cities between Tripoli and the rebel-held city of Benghazi. And what the U.S. and the other coalition members are trying to do is attack Libyan forces on the outskirts of those cities their supply lines, the armor and other equipment. And the problem is that there's fighting inside the city, but they don't want to drop bombs inside the city and hurt any of the civilians, so there's a real problem there. How do you prevent the Libyan forces from attacking civilians?

There's another problem too, that because of the fighting, there's a lack of humanitarian assistance getting into some of these cities. And some of the relief organizations say it's a real problem and could get worse in the coming days and weeks.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: We've been speaking with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

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