NATO Agrees to Take Over Libya No-Fly Mission; Will It Assume Civilian Protection Role, as Well?

ABC News' Kirit Radia reports:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters tonight that the U.S. is handing over command and control of the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO and that the alliance is drafting a plan to assume responsibility for the civilian protection mission, which for now remains the responsibility of the U.S.-led coalition.

“In the days ahead, as NATO assumes command-and-control responsibilities, the welfare of those civilians will be of paramount concern. This operation has already saved many lives, but the danger is far from over. As long as the Gadhafi regime threatens its people and defies the United Nations, we must remain vigilant and focused,” she said.

“Gadhafi's troops have been pushed back, but they remain a serious threat to the safety of the people,” she warned.

Whether and how NATO might take over the civilian protection mission, which involves bombing pro-Gadhafi forces that attack civilian centers, remains unclear.

Earlier this evening, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance still is considering the broader mission, namely the civilian protection element, and made it sound like that was not a done deal yet.

However, a senior administration official, who spoke to reporters only the condition of anonymity, insisted tonight that NATO had made a “political agreement” to take over all elements of implementing the U.N. resolution passed last week, authorizing all necessary measures to protect civilians. The official said that the planning on how to do this is all that remains and that it should be completed by the weekend.

Indeed, Secretary Clinton’s remarks this evening appeared to say as much.

“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,” Clinton said.

Clinton announced that she will travel to London next week to attend a conference on Tuesday that aims to coordinate the international efforts to enforce the U.N. resolution.

In her remarks, she recapped the whirlwind of events over the past week, culminating in what she said was a successful effort to beat back Col. Gadhafi’s forces who were advancing on Benghazi.

“We faced the prospect of an imminent humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were in danger. So an international coalition was compelled to act,” Clinton said.

"After only five days, we have made significant progress. A massacre in Benghazi was prevented. Gadhafi's air force and air defenses have been rendered largely ineffective. And the coalition is in control of the skies above Libya,” she added.

Clinton also provided an update on efforts to improve the humanitarian situation in Libya.

“Humanitarian relief is beginning to reach the people who need it. For example, just today we learned that at least 18 doctors and nurses from an organization funded by the United States Agency for International Development had arrived in Benghazi and were beginning to provide support to the city's main hospital,” she said.

The senior official credited Secretary Clinton with striking a deal that ultimately brought Turkey on board, allowing NATO to approve the expanded role, something he said her foreign counterparts praised her for.

He said these operations by NATO will take place under the authority of the North Atlantic Council, fulfilling a French demand for civilian political oversight.

And what about Germany? The Germans abstained from the U.N. Security Council vote over concerns about a no-fly zone, yet they approved NATO’s actions today.

The senior official said that Germany has made clear that it will not participate in the no-fly zone, but that it won’t stand in the way of it either. In fact, the official said that Germany indirectly contributed by mobilizing its AWACS flights for Afghanistan, freeing up others to perform that function over Libya. And Germany also has allowed the military bases in its territory to be used for the operation.

- Kirit Radia

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