Nato chief rules out arming Libyan rebels

Rasmussen says Nato is there to protect people, not arm them

Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday he opposed arming Libyan rebels, stressing Nato had intervened to protect and not to arm Libyans.

"We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the Libyan people," Rasmussen told reporters.

"As far as Nato is concerned, and I speak on behalf of Nato, we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo and the clear purpose of an arms embargo is to stop the flow of weapons into the country," he said.

"Nato will fully implement that part of the UN Security Council resolution," Rasmussen said, noting the alliance had "taken note of ongoing discussions in different countries" about arming the rebels.

His comments came as world powers debated whether to supply the opposition to Moamer Kadhafi's forces with weapons.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to rule our arming the rebels, and France and the United States have also raised that possibility, ruled out by Norway, Belgium and Denmark.

But France's defence minister said Thursday supplying arms to the rebels was not on the agenda, deeming it incompatible with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which provides for the protection of civilians.

"It is a decision of historic dimension that the UN Security council decided on behalf of the international community to take action in Libya to protect civilians against what might eventually become a humanitarian catastrophe," Rasmussen said.

"We will focus on the arms embargo and that is to stop the flow of entering Libya," he stressed.

The secretary-general was speaking at a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who this week announced his country would contribute eight fighter jets to the international mission in Libya.

The prime minister stressed the eight Swedish-built Gripen jets would not be involved in ground strikes, and their deployment -- which enjoys wide political support -- is still subject to a parliamentary vote to be held Friday.

Sweden's air force has not been involved in action since 1963, when it too part in a UN-mandated operation in the former Belgian Congo.

The Nordic country is not a member of Nato, although it has been in Nato's Partnership for Peace programme since 1994 and participates in the alliance's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan with some 500 troops.

Rasmussen said Sweden was "a valuable partner of Nato (...) notably in Afghanistan."

Nato on Thursday finally took full command of all Libyan operations on Thursday, but only a minority of the 28 allied nations will conduct the bombings that had been under US leadership until now.

An armada of ships and warplanes from the United States, France, Britain, Canada and other coalition nations came under Nato control after the alliance overcame internal divisions to take over the mission.

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