PARIS (Reuters) – World leaders gathered in Paris on Saturday to discuss a coordinated military intervention in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi defied the West with an advance into the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy met privately and then sat down with Arab leaders, an African Union representative, European Union representatives and European heads of state to prepare rapid U.N.-mandated action.
After Gaddafi broke his pledge of a ceasefire overnight, sources close to the Paris talks said military strikes could start as soon as the meeting ends on Saturday afternoon, with France, Britain and Canada in an initial operation and any participation by the United States or Arab nations coming later.
“The strikes could start around 3 or 4 o’clock (10 a.m.-11 a.m. EDT),” one source said, adding that Gaddafi’s advance into the eastern city of Benghazi had increased pressure to act fast.
A second source said it was “certainly possible” that strikes would start straight after the meeting.
Sarkozy will address the media after the meeting wraps up at around 3:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. EDT) and Clinton, Cameron and Merkel are also expected to make statements.
Iraq’s foreign minister was at the talks, as was the Qatari prime minister and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, even though Germany is not expected to participate in any action for now.
Determined to prove its diplomatic clout after its clumsy handling of the revolt inTunisia, Paris has been at the forefront of coordinating a world response to the crisis in Libya, where Gaddafi’s troops outgun rag-tag and poorly armed rebel forces. Sarkozy was the first foreign leader to recognize the opposition and drop support for Gaddafi.
Backed by Cameron, Sarkozy convened Saturday’s talks in a matter of hours after pushing France’s U.N. Security Council partners hard this week to back a resolution allowing possible military action and a no-fly zone over Libya.
NATO ROLE UNCLEAR
NATO ambassadors met in Brussels earlier on Saturday to discuss involvement by the 28-member military alliance in enforcing a no-fly zone, but no decision was taken.
A NATO diplomat said Britain, the United States and Canada were in favor of NATO taking a lead in any operation but said Paris was lukewarm on the idea.
“There could be a decision tomorrow saying that NATO will engage in a no-fly zone, but it’s still not clear whether it will be a coalition of the willing, or a NATO operation,” the diplomat said.
“France seems to have some problem with it being a NATO operation, given NATO’s reputation in the Arab world as a result of Afghanistan and given that NATO is seen as an alliance dominated by the United States.”
He added: “What is certain is that time is pressing. A delay of 12 hours of so could be very harmful.”
Gaddafi’s push into Libya’s second city of 670,000 people, in spite of the ceasefire pledged on Friday, appeared to be an attempt to pre-empt Western military action.
France and Britain declined to react to the latest attacks ahead of the Paris talks, but a French government source said the international community must act fast.
“Everything is ready (to act) but the decision is now a political one. It’s clear we have to move quickly,” he said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe met EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton earlier on Saturday to discuss the EU’s role.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Keith Weir in Paris and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Andrew Roche)