LONDON – With the U.S. handing off responsibility for military action in Libya, scores of diplomats and international officials gathered in London to start plotting the country’s future and declared their resolve to maintain pressure on Moammar Gadhafi until he stops attacking his own people.
But there were no Libyans included in the blue-ribbon guest list Tuesday. Nor was there a consensus among NATO countries taking command of the military action on its ultimate goal, or whether it would be enough for Gadhafi to flee to another country rather than face prosecution.
A few representatives of the rebels fighting Gadhafi hovered on the fringes of the high-level talks. However, their absence from the meetings was a reflection of just how politically delicate the crisis in Libya remains, and how much of its outcome could depend on outside factors.
In Libya on Tuesday, a sustained counterattack by government troops sent overmatched rebel fighters fleeing eastward for almost 100 miles, erasing many of the weekend gains by opposition forces attempting to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Panicked and badly rattled, hundreds of rebels sped away from the front to escape fierce rocket barrages by Gadhafi’s soldiers and militiamen. Rebel gun trucks raced three abreast and jostled madly for position on a coastal highway choked with retreating fighters and civilians. At one point, rebels surrendered 70 miles of terrain in just four hours.
It was a humiliating rout for a volunteer fighting force that had advanced 150 miles in 24 hours over the weekend behind allied airstrikes that pummeled government troops and armor. Many rebels had spoken confidently of marching on Tripoli, the capital, buoyed by false news reports Monday that their forces had captured Gadhafi’s hometown garrison of Sirte.
But by Tuesday afternoon, those same rebels were in headlong retreat from Bin Jawwad, which they had seized only Sunday.
There was no sign of allied airstrikes, which had cleared the way for the rebels’ weekend advances. Some rebels regard allied warplanes as their personal air force. However, the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorizes attacks against Gadhafi forces that threaten civilians does not extend to close air support for rebel forces. Rebels have been unable or unwilling to move forward without airstrikes, which have grounded Gadhafi’s air force and robbed his troops of many of their tanks, armor and rocket batteries.
The London conference was an attempt to forge greater unity of purpose among officials including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, leaders of the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, representatives of the Arab League and the African Union, and about three dozen foreign ministers.
Besides agreeing to keep the pressure on Gadhafi, they announced the formation of a “contact group” on Libya, a kind of steering committee to coordinate their political efforts, with the first meeting to be held in Qatar.
“We came to London to speak with one voice in support of a transition that leads to a brighter future for the Libyan people,” Clinton said. “I’m very pleased with the progress we have made.”
But as Washington passes control over the military mission to NATO this week, the conference papered over persistent divisions within the coalition regarding some of the methods and the ultimate goal of intervention in Libya.
Addressing the American public Monday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. would move to a supporting role in the military campaign and cautioned that Gadhafi may be able to hang on for an extended period. The U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing action in Libya permits military strikes to protect civilians, but not to force Gadhafi from power.
Clinton said she didn’t think the U.N. resolution would prohibit arming the rebels, but she stressed that the U.S. had not decided to do that.
Disagreements over the mission have especially strained relations in Europe in recent days, raising questions whether participants will be willing to stick with the military campaign for a long period if Gadhafi holds on. While two small Arab countries, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, have assigned warplanes to the mission, most of the firepower belongs to NATO countries.
Britain and France have spearheaded the aggressive response to Gadhafi, while NATO allies such as Italy, Germany and Turkey have urged caution.
On Tuesday, Italian and Turkish officials said they would press for a cease-fire between pro-Gadhafi forces and the rebels in eastern Libya. Critics in both countries charge that the allied military intervention has overstepped its U.N. mandate and, in effect, sided with the opposition.
Italy and Turkey are also known to favor a resolution that would allow Gadhafi to flee to another country. Britain, France and the U.S. have insisted that he face justice for alleged war crimes.
There were signs Tuesday that Washington and London have begun bending on that issue.
“We all agreed that Gadhafi and his regime have completely lost their legitimacy and should be held accountable for his actions,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters after the conference, adding: “We’re not engaged … in looking for somewhere for him to go, but that doesn’t exclude others (from) doing so.”
Clinton later echoed the notion, saying that all options were in play.