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EU prepares for emergency summit on Libya

French President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks with Libyan National Council emissaries Mahmoud Jebril and Ali Essawi at the Elysee Palace in Paris March 10, 2011.

GONZALO FUENTES/Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

As Libya's uprising escalates into something approaching full-scale war, the leaders of the Western world are engaged in their own heated conflict over how, when and how much to recognize and support those fighting dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Libya's loose-knit coalition of rebels is making increasingly urgent calls for a Western military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone and its associated bombing campaign after Col. Gadhafi's forces made dramatic military advances on Thursday, using heavy artillery and air strikes to retake the important eastern oil port of Ras Lanuf.

The stakes will be raised Friday as European leaders meet at an emergency Libya summit in Brussels following French President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision on Thursday to invite two envoys from the anti-Gadhafi rebels to Paris, officially recognize their opposition National Libyan Council, and announce the opening of a French embassy in the rebel-held city of Benghazi and a Libyan opposition embassy in Paris.

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In Brussels, Mr. Sarkozy will call for immediate NATO air strikes against Mr. Gadhafi's forces and headquarters - a position requested by the rebels that nevertheless puts him far ahead of most other leaders, who remain skeptical about a no-fly zone or military aid for the rebels.

For the time being at least, Mr. Sarkozy is at odds with officials at NATO and the United Nations, who have expressed dismay at the prospect of rushing to back an uprising without a coherent plan.

Mr. Sarkozy's unusual move in recognizing the National Libyan Council provoked an equally unusual rebuke from Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who wrote on his Twitter account: "Sweden recognizes states - not regimes. And most other EU countries are the same. Somewhat unclear on what France does."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was equally critical, describing France's position as "not the German position or the European position."

Canada's government remained among the most cautious, arguing that financial sanctions against Libya are enough for the moment, although Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon did say that Ottawa is seeking talks with the Libyan rebel leaders.

"Canada recognizes states and doesn't recognize individuals," he said. "But nonetheless, we do think this is a way forward - to be able to reach out to what we consider to be valid interlocutors."

But Mr. Cannon dismissed any talk of urgent action, arguing that next week's meeting of G8 foreign ministers in Paris will be the occasion for decisions and that economic and diplomatic pressure are enough for now.

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"I think the sanctions regime is working," he told reporters in Ottawa. "Obviously it has its merits and its objectives. There needs to be more, I believe. That is why we're still examining the options."

On Friday, most leaders of the 27-nation European Union are likely to fall behind the emerging U.S. position, which is that no military action should be taken - including the imposition of a no-fly zone - until it has the full support of NATO, the UN and probably the Arab League.

Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, expressed caution on Thursday in an address to a congressional committee. "We're looking to see whether there is any willingness in the international community to provide any authorization for further steps," she said. "Absent international authorization, the U.S. acting alone would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable."

It has become a fluid and fast-moving debate, not unlike the one that broke out after the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and countries debated whether to recognize dissident movements as legitimate governments in places such as Ukraine. (Canada was the first country to recognize the Ukrainian dissidents as legitimate.)

This time there is a greater sense of urgency as it becomes increasingly apparent that Libya's loose bands of activists and regime opponents are badly outgunned by Mr. Gadhafi's military forces.

On the other hand, there is fear among many countries that even a measured military involvement, such as a no-fly zone, could escalate into a protracted and deadly campaign and occupation that would anger Arabs already alienated by the Iraq invasion - which was itself preceded by a no-fly zone.

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"The Gadhafi regime is finished. This is clear," said Franco Frattini, the Foreign Minister for Italy - which, with its close ties to Mr. Gadhafi, is one of the most cautious countries, calling for a fact-finding mission to Benghazi before any action is considered.

"All the ministers said that the Gadhafi regime is over but nobody knows how to translate that statement into action," he said. "I don't think he will leave just because we tell him to."

The leaders of NATO, whose multinational forces are heavily tied up in Afghanistan, expressed support for the Libyan opposition but said that no action would be taken any time soon.

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday that the alliance will move warships into the southern Mediterranean to enforce an arms embargo and provide humanitarian assistance, but would not consider further action.

Mr. Rasmussen said NATO would require "a clear United Nations mandate," a demonstrable need for action, and the involvement of regional actors - such as members of the Arab League - before it considers taking action on a no-fly zone. British officials echoed these three preconditions on Thursday.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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