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France to boost Libya strikes
A pro-Gaddafi soldier at a checkpoint in Tripoli. (AFP)

Paris, April 20: The French and Italian governments said today that they would join Britain in sending a small number of military liaison officers to support the ragtag rebel army in Libya, offering a diplomatic boost for the insurgent leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, as he met President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.

After the meeting, The Associated Press reported, Sarkozy pledged to intensify French airstrikes that started in March.

The announcements came as the international community searched for a means to break a bloody battlefield deadlock that has killed hundreds in the contested cities of Misurata and Ajdabiya and left the rebels in tenuous control of a few major coastal cities in their campaign against Muammar Gaddafi.

They also coincided with word out of Qatar that Moussa Koussa, the former Libyan foreign minister who defected to Britain last month, was seeking asylum in that Arab emirate. In an interview with Al Arabiya, another Gaddafi minister, Abdulrahman Shalgam, said that Koussa — who has been freed of the financial sanctions slapped on all Libyan officials but who faces possible prosecution over the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in Scotland — is most likely to remain in Qatar, where he went for a conference last week.

The decision to send military advisers seemed to push the three countries closer toward the limits of the UN Security Council resolution in mid-March authorising Nato airstrikes but specifically “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”. But the promised deployments also seemed a tacit admission that almost five weeks of airstrikes have not been enough to disable Gaddafi’s troops and prevent his loyalists from threatening rebel forces and civilians.

The French government spokesman, François Baroin, told reporters today that the number of military liaison officers would be in single digits and that their mission would be to help “organise the protection of the civilian population”. The British deployment could involve up to 20 advisers.

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said yesterday that the British advisers would help the makeshift rebel forces “improve their military organisational structures, communications and logistics”.

Italy’s defence minister, Ignazio La Russa, said at a news conference today that Italy would send advisers “according to the needs” of the rebels. He said the advisers’ specific mission had not yet been determined. “They won’t be on the battlefield,” he said. “They’ll be mentors, they won’t accompany them. Training is one thing, participation another.”

La Russa said he believed that the rebels had more weapons than the ones they had taken from Gaddafi’s stockpiles. “They’re rich in enthusiasm, they want to fight for liberty, but naturally they are poor in experience and arms,” La Russa said of the rebels. “I don’t think they only have arms from the Gaddafi army. Some help arrived,” he added without elaborating further.

The moves to send military personnel have been likened by some critics to America’s decision to send military advisers to Vietnam, raising worries in both countries that they are being drawn closer to a conflict with no clear resolution on behalf of a fractious and militarily ineffective insurgent force about which little is known.

Facing restive electorates and with their forces already deployed in Afghanistan, European governments want to be seen in strict compliance with the UN resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya, short of an occupation.

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