Egypt, US defence chiefs discuss Libya

2011-03-24 13:08

Cairo – US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met today with his Egyptian counterpart Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi to discuss military action in Libya, where rebels have been fighting to overthrow leader Muammer Gaddafi.

Gates gave Tantawi an update on coalition military operations in Libya where the United States, Britain and France are leading efforts to enforce a no-fly zone to protect civilians, press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters in Cairo.

Egypt last week announced it was not planning to take part in any military action on its neighbour, but during the talks with Gates, neither Tantawi nor Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf raised objections to the coalition’s operations there, Morrell said.

He said the Egyptian leaders were taking into consideration the large number of Egyptians who live in Libya.

“They are very mindful of the fact that they have a large number of citizens who reside in Libya and are clearly concerned about their well-being,” Morrell said.

“Not in the context of our operations, but in the context of potential reprisals from Gaddafi,” he added.

Earlier a Western official in Cairo reiterated Egypt’s refusal to join the coalition.

“I think the Egyptians have been very clear they do not intend to involve themselves in the conflict in Libya,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Their primary concern is the safety of Egyptian citizens,” the official said, adding that there was no sign that Cairo was trying to arm the opposition forces.

A reported 1.5 million Egyptians lived in Libya before protests erupted on February 15 and turned into a war pitting Gaddafi’s regime against rebels trying to overthrow him.

Since then, tens of thousands of Egyptians have fled the violence in Libya.

As the transitional Egypt carves out its foreign policy after Mubarak’s ouster, it has nonetheless stayed true to one of the veteran’s policy pillars – the peace deal with Israel.

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, followed by Jordan in 1994.

Tantawi wanted “to reaffirm Egypt’s commitment to their peace treaty with Israel,” Morrell said.

The two defence chiefs also discussed Cairo’s efforts to counter arms smuggling in the Sinai on the border with Gaza, Morrell said.

Israel has repeatedly called on Egypt to control the network of tunnels criss-crossing under the Gaza-Egypt border through which basic goods and weapons enter the Gaza Strip.

Gates also acknowledged Egypt’s economic troubles – when the tourism trade came to a complete standstill during anti-regime riots that toppled Mubarak – and promised continued US economic and political aid.

As Gates shook hands with Tantawi after their meeting, he said: “Anything we can do, don’t hesitate to call me.”

Tantawi has been heading the Arab world’s most populous nation since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which he chairs, took power when Mubarak stepped down.

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