Move contrary to stand on non-lethal equipment

The Obama administration on Thursday authorised the use of killer drones for missile strikes against government forces in Libya, in stark contrast to a statement earlier this week that it would only provide non-lethal military equipment to rebel groups. The drone deployment also runs contrary to the United States' stand that it would tamp down its direct military involvement in Libya by handing over operational command to NATO forces.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday announced the induction of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle, laden with Hellfire missiles, into the NATO combat mission in Libya, describing its role as “a modest contribution”.

While the Predator was said to have already been conducting surveillance missions over Libya for a few weeks, this would mark the first time in the two-month old conflict that the drone would be deployed for air strikes against the forces of Muammar Qadhafi, the Libyan leader.

This development makes Libya the fourth country in recent history — following Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen — to become a target for Predator strikes and officials said their primary focus would be “helping rebels in the besieged city of Misrata, where a humanitarian crisis has unfolded in the last week,” reports confirmed.

In a press briefing, General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the first Predator mission in Libya was due to kick off on Thursday night but was reportedly abandoned due to inclement weather. He said two patrols of drones would be deployed above Libya “at any given time,” and they would seek out Colonel Qadhafi's forces in civilian areas.

He clarified why the drones were being used now, saying, “What they will bring that is unique to the conflict is their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on targets... They are uniquely suited for urban areas.”

According to sources the U.S. move reflects both the fact that there are likely to be gaps in NATO's ability to “carry out complicated, extended combat missions without continued and significant American support,” and also that the rebel forces in eastern Libya are “poorly armed, inexperienced and disorganised.”

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