CF-18s to join Libya mission soon: MacKay

Canadian warplanes committed to a Western coalition air campaign over Libya will be enforcing a no-fly zone within 48 hours, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Sunday.
Six CF-18s left CFB Bagotville in Quebec on Friday to join the Western air coalition to enforce a UN no-fly zone over Libya. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canadian warplanes committed to a Western coalition air campaign over Libya will be enforcing a no-fly zone within 48 hours, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Sunday.

The announcement comes a day after U.S. and European airstrikes began on Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi's forces and air defences to halt their bloody crackdown on rebels in the country's east.

The CF-18s from CFB Bagotville, along with 150 personnel, arrived at a small airbase in Trapani, Sicily, around noon local time Saturday. The military had been considering moving the aircraft to a larger base in France, but defence sources said the jets are staying in Italy, the CBC's James Cudmore reported on Sunday.

The sources said the Canadian pilots will start flying missions to enforce the no-fly zones once the military has approved systems for rules of engagement, command and control, as well as identifying friendly or hostile forces, Cudmore reported.

One of the factors complicating the process has been that Libyan government and rebel forces are using the same equipment, the sources said.

MacKay told CTV on Sunday that the CF-18s "will be taking part in sorties to ensure that there is restricted airspace over Libya."

Canadian ship on station off Libya

Later Sunday in Wolfville, N.S., MacKay talked about HMCS Charlottetown, which left Halifax on March 2 and is stationed in the Mediterranean Sea.

"That ship was originally deployed to assist in the evacuation of Canadians from Libya for command and control purposes," MacKay said Sunday. "We also have a Sea King helicopter on board.

"We are part of what's called 'op-mobile,' which is currently under NATO tasking. But that ship has been deployed forward from Gibraltar and it's about 70 kilometres off the coast of Libya right now."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper authorized the deployment to support a United Nations resolution declaring a no-fly zone over Libya and authorizing the use of "all necessary measures" to stop attacks on Libyan civilians by pro-Gadhafi forces.

In another development, the government confirmed Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon met with a member of Libya's transitional council in Paris this weekend and that the Canadian government views the council as a "valid interlocutor."

Cannon and the representative talked about the situation on the ground in Libya, particularly in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, and spoke about the eventuality of the Libyan people holding a legitimate referendum on a constitution, according to the department.