Libya: Liam Fox to ask US for unmanned drones

Liam Fox will make a top level visit to Washington next week to ask for desperately needed unmanned drones in the war over Libya.

The Defence Secretary will be joined by Gen Sir David Richards, the head of the Armed Forces, on the mission to drum up greater air support from the Americans who withdrew their combat fighters from Libya earlier this month.

Dr Fox and Gen Richards will meet their counterparts the American Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in a bid for American assistance.

They will request Reaper armed drones in order to patrol the skies above the besieged town of Misurata with the ability to strike at very short notice.

Nato is experiencing difficulties in getting air power over the port town in time to hit targets as it takes more than an hour to fly jets from southern Italy, although they can remain overhead with air-to-air refueling.

Air force chiefs are growing frustrated that Col Muammar Gaddafi's tanks or artillery fire off a couple of rounds then withdraw into cover before they can be hit.

The bid has also been made because Nato does not have enough ground attack aircraft to remain permanently overhead "manning a kill box".

Dr Fox is also likely to ask about resupply of Paveway bombs and Tomahawk missiles that have been used in large numbers over Libya.

The trip has been planned as a Labour peer who is the UN's humanitarian chief criticised the despatch of British military personnel to Libya. to assist rebel fighters against Muammar Gaddafi.

Lady Amos, who has become a key figure in restraining western intervention in the country, suggested the arrival of senior British officers could "blur the line" between military and aid missions.

Her comments prompted a sharp response from Downing Street, which said Mr Cameron had been "crystal clear" in setting out the advisers' mission, and that they would help the aid effort.

Baroness Amos, who was leader of the Lords under Tony Blair, now serves as Ban Ki-Moon's Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

"The UK government will have its own priorities," she said. "My priority is getting humanitarian aid in and making sure that the lines between the humanitarian and the military are not blurred." "I'm not aware of what the terms of reference of these advisers are," she said.

Last night a Downing Street spokesman said: "We have been absolutely crystal clear. The advisers are not 'forces on the ground'.

"They are assisting the National Transitional Council (NTC) with organisational structures, communications and logistics. This is not blurring the lines. It is quite the opposite."

Lady Amos vetoed a plan for the deployment of up to 1,000 EU troops to secure aid missions has been drawn up by senior officials including Lady Ashton, another Labour peer, who is the EU's foreign policy chief.

But Baroness Amos refused to issue the request.

Aid agencies on the ground have also stressed they do not want to endanger workers by having them associated with armed forces.

Having at least three of the drones would ensure 24 hour coverage over Misurata where the bombardments continued yesterday.

[Source: By Thomas Harding, and Jon Swaine, The Telegraph, London, 21Apr11]

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