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Hungarian soldiers stand next to a NATO AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft at the tarmac of the millitary airbase of Kecskemet, 90km east of Budapest January 25, 2007. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters/Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)
Hungarian soldiers stand next to a NATO AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft at the tarmac of the millitary airbase of Kecskemet, 90km east of Budapest January 25, 2007. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters/Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

As NATO planes circle close to Libya, leaders remain divided on response Add to ...

NATO's squadron of sophisticated surveillance planes are circling off Libya's coast, providing a round-the-clock stream of detailed information about Moammar Gadhafi's military efforts to crush pro-democracy rebels.

"We'll have a better picture of what is really going on in this part of the world," said Ivo Daalder, the Obama administration's ambassador to the 28-nation military alliance.

Although the AWACS aircraft, massively modified Boeing 707s with huge rotating radar domes, are primarily intended to direct and control air combat, their sophisticated sensors can detect ground convoy movements and intercept radio signals. The sophisticated "picture" extending hundreds of kilometres would be vital to create the no-fly zone now being advocated by Britain and France.

Even without sending NATO warplanes into combat to destroy Libyan anti-aircraft missile sites and establish a no-fly zone, the 24-7 surveillance provides intelligence that would be useful for everything from providing humanitarian relief, to assisting the rebels, to tracking any effort by Col. Gadhafi to flee.

More than 100 Canadians, including pilots, intelligence officers and radar technicians, are deployed with NATO's 17-aircraft squadron of AWACS, the alliance's only jointly owned and operated squadron, which controlled the air war over Kosovo, sent four aircraft to direct air strikes in Afghanistan and routinely monitors airspace across Europe. Canada is, after the United States and Germany, the third-largest contributor to NATO's AWACS fleet.

NATO seems split over how to cope with the worsening crisis in Libya. Some nations - notably Italy, which has had a long and close relationship with Col. Gadhafi and now has grave fears about a massive exodus of unwelcome Arab refugees - have refused to slap sanctions on the regime in Tripoli. Others, Britain and France among them, have been far more hawkish, pushing for a no-fly zone and considering active military support for the embattled and ill-equipped rebels who control Benghazi and eastern Libya.

U.S. President Barack Obama, with America's military already stretched thin and badly worn after a decade of constant warring in Afghanistan and Iraq, has so far heeded the advice of Defence Secretary Robert Gates and top commanders that a no-fly zone would need a major initial attack to destroy Libya's air defence system - an act of war that could quickly turn Arab sentiment anti-American.

Mr. Daalder made clear the Obama administration wants a clear UN Security Council mandate before considering a no-fly zone.

"All of us want a Security Council resolution … that's a pretty clear requirement, we would certainly seek one," he said. Although NATO imposed a no-fly zone and launched an air war against Serb forces in Kosovo in 1999 without a UN mandate, requiring one this time could prove a serious stumbling block.

China, perhaps nervous about latent pro-democracy stirrings, has flatly ruled out foreign military intervention in Libya and, as one of the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, could block a no-fly zone.

Mr. Obama was publicly keeping all options available, even as senior administration officials insisted that humanitarian assistance, sanctions and urging Gadhafi loyalists to abandon or oust the dictator were the favoured routes.

"No option has been removed from the table, but ground troops are not top of the list at this point," White House spokesman Jay Carney said when asked if an invasion was possible. "Arming [the rebels and]providing weapons is one of the range of options that is being considered," he added.

Mr. Obama's non-interventionist stand is coming under fire from some at home. Both Senator John Kerry, an influential Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator John McCain, the veteran Republican and former naval aviator, have called for U.S. warplanes to enforce a no-fly zone.

"The last thing we want to think about is any kind of military intervention," Mr. Kerry said, adding "I don't consider the 'fly zone' stepping over that line."

Mr. McCain, was more hawkish. "Clearly, we are on the side of the rebels," he said. "A ground intervention [on]the part of the United States could be very counterproductive, but we can assist in a lot of ways: humanitarian, intelligence, providing them with intelligence."

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