Question of ‘when, not if’ Gaddafi will quit

European leaders and British diplomats have insisted it is a matter of “when, not if” Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi will go as Nato marks 100 days of air strikes against his regime.

A senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official claimed yesterday the momentum had “shifted irrevocably” against the dictator and he was down to a “handful” of followers.

“The sands of time are running down for Gaddafi,” he told reporters in London yesterday. “The momentum has shifted irrevocably against Gaddafi and those around him. Gaddafi’s actions have stripped him of legitimacy. There can be no future for Libya with him in power.”

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He added: “The anger against him is simmering. The question is not if he will go, but when.”

Nato has now flown 12,000 sorties, including 5,000 attack missions, and hit more than 2,400 targets since launching strikes against Libya 100 days ago on Sunday under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

The British military alone has damaged or destroyed more than 500 targets, including 240 tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery and rocket launchers, and more than 150 buildings, including bunkers and ammunition stores.

But the Ministry of Defence revealed this week that the UK’s role in the Nato operation is costing taxpayers £43m per month.

And US president Barack Obama suffered a setback yesterday when US lawmakers voted down a measure giving him the authority to continue the US military action against Libya.

The vote was 295-123, majority 172 and while the congressional action has no immediate effect on American involvement, it represents a significant setback for the President, marking the first time since 1999 that either chamber has voted against a military operation.

House Republican leaders had pushed for the vote, rank-and-file members saying the President had broken broke the law by failing to seek congressional approval for the three-month-old war.

The result came amid criticism of the US’s role in the international campaign, French President Nicolas Sarkozy saying that France and Britain were carrying most of the burden.

While other European leaders have pushed for some kind of political solution in Libya, the French leader strongly defended the Nato-led military operation - and Nato itself.

He rejected comments by US Defence Minister Robert Gates that the alliance’s future could be in doubt because of European reluctance to exercise military might.

“I wouldn’t say that the bulk of the work in Libya is being done by our American friends,” Mr Sarkozy told reporters in Brussels at a European Union summit yesterday.

“The French and English and their allies are doing the work.”

The United States has insisted on a backseat role in Libya. It led the initial coalition air strikes in March, but in April withdrew US forces from a direct combat role. Seven Nato members are now participating in air strikes: Britain, France, Belgium, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Italy. But, as Mr Gates said, most of Nato’s 28 members, including Germany, have refused to join the strike mission in Libya.

Mr Sarkozy would not give a timeline for an eventual end to the three-month-old air campaign, saying that would play into Gaddafi’s hands.

“Things are progressing. I would have liked them to progress more quickly, but they are progressing,” he added.