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26 May, 2016 11:27

Greece, Italy and Malta close off airspace to Libyans amid NATO operation rumors

Greece has closed off its airspace to flights from Libya until September, local media reported citing a looming NATO operation. The alliance however refuted “baseless rumors” of any combat op in Libya, which remains in turmoil since the 2011 intervention.

A notice to airmen (NOTAM) was issued by the Greek authorities on Wednesday, which bans Libyan flights from entering Flight Information Region Athens starting Thursday, the Greek media reported. Similar restrictions were reportedly imposed by Malta and Italy, although they will last till August.

An exception to the rule is made for military aircraft with special authorization, and emergency cases such as evacuations for medical reasons, according to the Kathimerini daily. The newspaper claims the decision was made ahead of EU and NATO joint training in the Mediterranean. The Phoenix Express 2016 exercise is scheduled for the summer off the island of Crete.

The explanation, however, doesn’t convince some observers, who believe that the alliance is preparing a new full-fledged military intervention in Libya. The Greek communist party demanded that the government clearly state whether NATO is preparing such an operation and what would the country’s part in it would be.

The party “denounces any intervention in Libya and demands not to take part in the Euro Atlantic plans,” it said in a statement.

Following the reports of NATO’s possible involvement in the airspace closures, the alliance’s spokesperson Oana Lungescu took to Twitter to refute them as “baseless rumors” and “disinformation.” In a number of tweets to the media she insisted that “NATO has not requested any airspace closure and is not planning any combat operation in Libya.”

Earlier on Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance “stood ready” to act on a request of the country’s new reconciliation government. It was formed in a bid to bridge a gap between two rival governments, which had been ruling different parts of the disjointed country for months.

“I spoke recently with [Libyan] Prime Minister Sarraj on how NATO can assist and he will soon send a team of experts to NATO to identify how we can help the new Libyan Government of National Accord," Stoltenberg said a joint press conference with the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Russia's upper parliamentary chamber foreign relations committee chief, Konstantin Kosachev, suggested that any NATO action would cause "chaos," and that the alliance should seek UN support.

"Any international interference should be based on the decision of the UN Security Council, and nothing else," he told RT.

NATO played a key role in 2011 by bombing Libyan government forces and helping armed groups oust and brutally kill strongman Muammar Gaddafi. The intervention, which was based on an overstretched interpretation of a UN mandate to form a no-fly zone in Libya, was hailed as a great success by the victors.

Since then Libya has de facto disintegrated into three historic parts and degraded into a state of constant armed struggle and poverty. It also became a major hub for asylum seekers, trying to reach Italy. Lately the Iraqi-Syrian terrorist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) gained a foothold in eastern coastal part of Libya, slowly gaining control over what is left of the country’s oil exports.

US, British and French special forces are operating in Libya trying to undermine IS’ powerbase. In February, the US conducted a major bombing operation against a suspected IS training camp in Libya, killing dozens of militants.

Some members of the alliance, particularly Germany and France, are skeptical about escalating NATO’s or EU’s mission in Libya and the Mediterranean, a development favored by the US and Italy, according to Reuters. Berlin and Paris want a support role only for themselves, ruling out deployment of ground troops.

Despite “clear signs” of NATO planning a military operation in Libya, Jason Ditz, news editor at antiwar.com believes the alliance “wants to steer clear of talking about it” by labeling their activities as simple “training exercises.”

“As we’ve seen in the last few years in countries like Afghanistan, NATO has taken to rebranding a lot of fairly flagrant combat operations as simply training exercises and it seems to be barely effective in keeping such operations off the front page of the respective countries,” Ditz noted.

“But, in practice, combat operations 15 years in are still going on in Afghanistan – all the indications of the planning in Libya are that even if it is branded a training operation almost none of the troops that are going to be sent to Libya are going to be trainers.”