Qatar revealed for the first time on Wednesday that hundreds of its soldiers had joined Libyan rebel forces on the ground as they battled troops of veteran leader Muammar Qaddafi.
“We were among them and the numbers of Qataris on ground were hundreds in every region,” said Qatari chief of staff Major General Hamad bin Ali al-Atiya.
The announcement marks the first time that Qatar has acknowledged it had military boots on the ground in Libya.
Previously the gas-rich country said it had only lent the support of its air force to NATO-led operations to protect civilians during the eight-month uprising, which ended when Qaddafi was felled with a bullet to the head after being captured last week.
Speaking on the sidelines of a meeting in Doha of military allies of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), Atiya said the Qataris had been “running the training and communication operations.”
“Qatar had supervised the rebels’ plans because they are civilians and did not have enough military experience. We acted as the link between the rebels and NATO forces,” he said.
Libya’s interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil told the meeting that Qatar had been “a major partner in all the battles we fought.”
He added that the Qataris had “planned” the battles which paved the way for NTC fighters to gradually take over Qaddafi-held towns and cities.
Libyans seek further NATO help
Libya’s interim leader urged NATO on Wednesday to maintain its involvement in the country until the end of the year, though the Western military alliance is keen to wind up its formal mission within days.
“We hope (NATO) will continue its campaign until at least the end of this year to serve us and neighboring countries,” Abdel Jalil told the Conference of Friends Committee made at a Doha conference of military allies of his National Transitional Council.
This request is aimed at “ensuring that no arms are infiltrated into those countries and to ensure the security of Libyans from some remnants of Qaddafi’s forces who have fled to nearby countries,” he added.
The NTC is also seeking help from NATO in “developing Libya’s defense and security systems,” Abdel Jalil told the conference.
With Qaddafi’s son and heir-apparent Seif al-Islam believed still at large and seeking to flee following his father’s killing last week, Jalil said he wanted NATO help in stopping Qaddafi loyalists escaping justice.
But at the Brussels headquarters of the alliance, whose air strikes and intelligence backed the motley rebel forces for eight months at substantial financial cost, NATO officials recalled that their U.N. mandate was to protect civilians, not target individuals.
A meeting of NATO ambassadors, postponed from Wednesday to Friday to allow for further discussion with the NTC and United Nations, was still due to endorse a preliminary decision to halt the Libya mission on October 31, a spokeswoman for the bloc said.
Asked if NATO ambassadors on Friday would stick to the decision to end the mission at the end of the month, spokeswoman Carmen Romero said: “That is the preliminary decision ... The formal decision will be taken this week.”
She added that, for the time being, “NATO continues to monitor the situation on the ground, and retains the capability to respond to any threats to civilians”.
Romero said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in consultations with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council about plans to conclude the mission.
NATO states took their decision last week based on military recommendations. The commander the Libya mission Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said on Monday he saw virtually no risk of forces loyal to Qaddafi mounting successful attacks to regain power and NATO believed NTC forces were able to handle security threats.
War crimes complaint
Meanwhile Qaddafi’s family plans to file a war crimes complaint against NATO with the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the alliance’s alleged role in his death, their lawyer said .
The 69-year-old ex-strongman was captured near the city of Sirte in circumstances that are still unclear, but it has been confirmed NATO aircraft fired on pro-Qaddafi vehicles driving in a convoy from the city.
Marcel Ceccaldi, a French lawyer who previously worked for Qaddafi’s regime and now represents his family, told AFP that a complaint would be filed with the Hague-based ICC because NATO’s attack on the convoy led directly to his death.
“The willful killing (of someone protected by the Geneva Convention) is defined as a war crime by Article 8 of the ICC’s Rome Statute,” he said.
He said he could not yet say when the complaint would be filed, but said it would target both NATO executive bodies and the leaders of alliance member states.
“Qaddafi’s homicide shows that the goal of (NATO) member states was not to protect civilians but to overthrow the regime,” Ceccaldi said.
“Either the ICC intervenes as an independent and impartial jurisdiction or it doesn’t, in which case force will overrule the law,” he said.
The NTC has announced an investigation into Qaddafi’s death.
International disquiet has grown over how Qaddafi met his end after NTC fighters hauled him out of a culvert where he was hiding following NATO air strikes on the convoy in which he had been trying to flee his falling hometown.
The ICC in June issued arrest warrants for Qaddafi, Seif al-Islam and the former regime’s intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, for “crimes against humanity” committed by troops under their orders, using “lethal force” to quell the uprising against his regime.
Local officials said Tuesday that Seif al-Islam and Senussi, who have so far evaded capture, were poised to cross into Niger where they were expected to seek refuge along with other former regime officials.