Navy frigates on standby as Libya action steps up

JUBILANT Libyan rebels celebrate next to burning cars on Saturday after Muammar Gaddafi's forces were pushed back from Benghazi, eastern Libya
JUBILANT Libyan rebels celebrate next to burning cars on Saturday after Muammar Gaddafi's forces were pushed back from Benghazi, eastern Libya
HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in Portsmouth            Picture: PA

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ROYAL Navy warships are on standby to assist in operations to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya, says the Ministry of Defence.

Portsmouth frigate HMS Westminster and Devonport-based HMS Cumberland are both off the coast of the country in the Mediterranean.

As international forces prepare for a naval blockade of Libyan ports, Captain Karl Evans, Chief of Naval Staff, said the ships ‘remain poised to contribute to whatever form the embargo operation, probably led by Nato, will take off the coast of Libya’.

It comes as allied forces continue to target Colonel Gaddafi’s air defences.

An MoD spokesman added that the ships could be used for surveillance purposes or for carrying people.

‘They (the frigates) have been out there for quite a while,’ he said. ‘They will be there for a little while longer. The ships have a surveillance capability.

‘What might look like a ship that isn’t doing much could be doing quite a lot.

‘They could be used for carrying people and both ships have a helicopter.

‘We have already got ships out there, it’s just a question of coming up with designs for operation.’

Medical support ship RFA Argus is also in the area providing support for anyone injured in attacks.

And France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle left the port of Toulon en route for a position off the Libyan coast yesterday.

Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock told The News: ‘I am delighted that the Royal Navy are playing their part.

‘I wish everyone well and a safe return but I do have a problem with the government and the whole UN situation in terms of how long they will stay and what they will do.

‘If Gaddafi doesn’t go, do we stay? If we aren’t careful we will have soldiers on the ground there in next to no time. Once again we have pushed ourselves into a situation of not knowing which way to turn. We should be very cautious about where we go from here.’

Allied nations yesterday declared themselves satisfied with the first day of military strikes on Libya, which they said had curtailed Gaddafi’s ability to attack rebel cities.

A barrage of 112 Tomahawk missiles fired at Libya’s air defences by US warships and a British submarine in the Mediterranean was followed on Sunday morning by a pre-dawn raid involving RAF Tornados and American B-2 stealth bombers.

The MoD said the attacks had struck ‘high-value targets’ in capital Tripoli and other parts of Libya.

The chief of the US armed forces, Admiral Mike Mullen, said Gaddafi was no longer able to deploy helicopters and aircraft, meaning that ‘effectively the no-fly zone has been put in place’.

But there were signs of unease in the Arab world over the scale and nature of the attacks, which also included direct air strikes by French Mirage and Rafale jets on Gaddafi’s tanks outside Benghazi.

The Arab League’s secretary general Amr Mussa appeared to suggest allied forces had gone beyond the measures to protect civilians called for by his organisation last weekend and authorised by Thursday’s United Nations resolution.

THE COUNTRIES INVOLVED

· UK: Missiles fired from submarine; Typhoon and Tornado jet fighters; surveillance planes; HMS Westminster and HMS Cumberland on standby in Mediterranean; RFA Argus in the area

· US: Cruise missiles fired from USS Barry and USS Stout; amphibious warships, submarines and command-and-control ship USS Mount Whitney. Air strikes by fighter jets and B-2 stealth bombers

· France: Air strikes by Mirage fighters and Rafale jets; Awacs surveillance plane; the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier

· Italy: Nato base at Naples understood to be central hub; other Mediterranean bases made available

· Canada: Six F-18 fighter jets and 140 personnel

forces from Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Qatar and Spain, are also ready to participate