France and Italy will send military officers to aid Libyan rebels

French President Nicolas Sarkozy left and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi right

France and Italy will send small teams of military officers to advise Libyan rebels who are seeking to topple Col Muammar Gaddafi.  French officials said fewer than 10 would be sent, while Italy’s defence minister announced that 10 would go.

The despatch of the military advisers underlines the growing concerns in a number of European capitals that the air campaign over Libya is not yielding the expected results. After more than four weeks of air strikes, Libyan government forces have not crumbled; the Libyan regime still seems firmly in control in Tripoli; and the rebels have shown very limited capabilities on the ground.

France for one wants to step up the air campaign, but it is clear that unless the rebels can be turned into a more effective fighting force, and without a genuine ceasefire, Nato air operations may have to continue for the foreseeable future.

The French, British and Italians are all stressing that their small deployments do not constitute “boots on the ground” – they have no intention of deploying combat troops. But some MPs in London fear that this is the thin end of the wedge and that the allies risk being drawn ever deeper into the Libyan conflict.

The officers are expected to advise rebel leaders on how to organize their ragtag forces, now struggling against Gaddafi’s better-armed and -trained army. They will also liaise with NATO on the location of rebels and Gaddafi’s troops.  This comes after the U.K. decided to go ahead and send military adivisers to help coordinate the air strikes against Col Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.

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