No-Fly Zone Questions Have Tricky Answers
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Military operations in Libya are now in their third day. Coalition warplanes are expanding the no-fly zone there. They're also continuing to attack Libyan ground forces, and that's where we're going to focus for the next few minutes.
NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports on two fundamental questions about the mission in Libya: Who is the international coalition allowed to protect? And who is it allowed to attack?
TOM BOWMAN: The American commander overseeing the Libyan no-fly zone and the protection of civilians is Army General Carter Ham. He says he has clear marching orders from the U.N.
General CARTER HAM (Commander, U.S. Africa Command): What we are charged with doing is when there are threats to the civilian populace, we are obliged under the mission and under the Security Council resolution to try to protect them.
BOWMAN: Sounds straightforward enough, but it's not.
Gen. HAM: These are situations that brief much better at a headquarters than they do in a cockpit of an aircraft.
BOWMAN: That's because for the pilots carrying out the mission, there's a lot that's not clear. Starting with this basic question: Who is a civilian?
The general says that would include a Libyan carrying an AK-47 to protect his home and family from Libyan troops. Even if that man supports the opposition, he's still a civilian. Then, it gets more complicated.
Gen. HAM: There are also those in the opposition that have armored vehicles and that have heavy weapons.
BOWMAN: General Ham says they're clearly not civilians.
Gen. HAM: Those parts of the opposition, I would argue, are no longer covered under that protect-civilian clause. So it's a - it's not a clear distinction, because we're not talking about a regular military force. It's a very problematic situation.
BOWMAN: Very problematic because General Ham says the coalition has no mission to become the air force for the opposition. Remember, the mandate is to protect civilians, but from thousands of feet in the air, it can be hard to tell if it's civilians or rebels being attacked.
Gen. HAM: If it's a situation where it's unclear that it is civilians who may be being attacked, then those aircrews are under instruction to be very cautious.
BOWMAN: So that's the dilemma of who to protect. Then, there's the question of who to attack and when. Here's General Ham.
Gen. HAM: There is no intent to completely destroy the Libyan military forces. But those forces which are attacking civilians and pose a threat and are not compliant with the direction from the international community, then those forces can, have been and will be attacked.
BOWMAN: So Libyan forces who move away from, let's say, the rebel stronghold of Benghazi won't be bombed by coalition aircraft as long as they don't attack or threaten civilians. But reading the intentions of an enemy force can be complicated, especially from a cockpit, even a tank dug in in a defensive posture can be a threat.
Gen. HAM: There's no simple answer to, you know, if you're at point A, you get attacked, and you're at point B, you get attacked.
BOWMAN: General Ham pointed to one more scenario: Can air power protect civilians from Libyan troops when they're both within the close confines of a city? His answer: That's a very, very difficult situation for us.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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