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The Globe and Mail

Canada sends two more planes to 'evolving' Libyan mission: MacKay

Two CF-18 pilots from Canadian Forces 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron in Bagotville, walk across the tarmac at the Birgi NATO Airbase in Trapani, Sicily, March 24, 2011.


The Canadian Forces have sent two Aurora reconnaissance aircraft to patrol the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya.

They join seven fighter jets and a frigate already deployed to enforce a United-Nations-mandated no-fly zone and an arms embargo against the regime of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The Auroras, out of Comox, B.C., and Greenwood, N.S., carry enough fuel to patrol offshore for 17 hours at a time and are equipped with long-range sensors. They will be based in Italy.

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They join HMCS Charlottetown and other coalition vessels in preventing shipments of arms and mercenaries into Libya.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay says the Libyan mission is "evolving."

He said NATO has agreed to take over command of blockade operations, but there is still no agreement about the alliance assuming charge of the U.S.-co-ordinated no-fly zone.

Later on Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said command of Western military operations in Libya was to be transferred from the United States to NATO within a day or two.

"Compromise has been reached in principle in a very short time," Mr. Davutoglu told reporters. "The operation will be handed over to NATO completely."

He said this would happen as soon as possible, within one or two days. Agreement had been reached in a teleconference with his counterparts from the United States, France and Britain.

Much like the Afghanistan mission, there are deep divisions within NATO about assuming responsibility in Libya and some members have imposed restrictions - or national caveats - on what their forces can do.

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Turkey, a major partner and the biggest Muslim nation in the alliance, has balked at warplanes going on the offensive against Gadhafi forces. Germany has made it clear it will not participate in military action and has withdrawn its ships and aircraft from the Mediterranean altogether.

Negotiations are still underway in Brussels to bring the entire international effort under one umbrella, Mr. MacKay said.

"There would be greater clarity for this to a NATO mission," he told reporters during a briefing at defence headquarters.

The changing role of coalition air forces was underscored Wednesday by the assistant chief of air staff, who said two Canadian CF-18s were tasked with air-to-ground attack missions in over the last 24 hours.

Neither sortie dropped any bombs, but Major-General Tom Lawson said the overall mission is progressing from attacking air threats posed by Libyan jets and helicopters to targets on the ground, such as tanks.

Earlier in the week, Canadian fighters joined coalition air assaults that destroyed an ammunition depot and helped drive Mr. Gadhafi's tanks out of blood-soaked Misrata, Libya's third-largest city.

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Eyewitnesses on the ground say the tanks rolled back into the city early Thursday under the cover of darkness.

Reports coming out of Misrata, a city of 500,000, last week spoke innocent civilians shot in the streets by soldiers loyal to Gadhafi.

The Harper government last week dispatched six CF-18s to enforce the no-fly zone. It added a seventh aircraft as a spare early this week.

Mr. MacKay said the option to send the Auroras, which were offered up to the coalition, was there last week, but the air force wanted to make sure there was no gap in maritime patrols at home.

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