PARIS, July 30 (Reuters) - France’s defence minister vowed on Saturday to keep up its aerial bombardment of Muammar Gaddafi’s troops in Libya as it readies to withdraw the conflict’s only aircraft carrier for maintenance.
Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said France would move its Rafale fighter jets to NATO’s Sicily base from its aircraft carrier in Corsica, giving it closer access to Tripoli.
France said in June it would withdraw its Charles de Gaulle carrier, which has been at sea for 18 months, for maintenance in the autumn.
“We are displaying our capacity to endure,” Longuet told Le Journal du Dimanche in comments to be published in Sunday’s newspaper. “We are telling Gaddafi that we will not let up on our pressure and to his opponents that we will not abandon them.”
Without giving a timeframe for the conflict, Longuet said military constraints should not impede diplomacy, and there was no future for Libya with Gaddafi.
“We have two priorities in mind — to organize the continued aerial operation and to economise the resources used,” he said.
Sending France’s Rafale multirole war planes to NATO’s base in Sigonella, Sicily will allow for closer access to Libya, as it is 500 km (310 miles) from Tripoli rather than the 1,000 km from Corsica.
Some twenty aircraft have called the Charles de Gaulle home, including Rafales, Hawkeyes and attack helicopters, since its deployment from France in late March.
Longuet made no mention of any plans to increase, or reduce the number of French aircraft used in the conflict, which is believed to be about 30. In the past week, France has flown nearly 190 sorties, according to the Defence Ministry.
“At no moment should military constraints prevent our diplomats and politicians from finding a political solution,” said Longuet. “If Gaddafi has the slightest feeling that time is on his side, he will play this card. Time belongs to us, we must not be prisoners to a calendar or to technical constraints.”
“There is no future for Libya with Gaddafi,” added Longuet.
Earlier this month, Longuet — who is known to sometimes speak out of line — said rebels should begin direct negotiations with Gaddafi’s camp. His statements reflected France’s growing restlessness with the protracted campaign, but caused some to question whether there had been a policy shift.
France spearheaded the West’s military intervention in Libya in March under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians, and has spent more than 160 million euros ($228 million) on its operations thus far.
Lawmakers recently voted to extend funding for the military intervention after Prime Minister Francois Fillon said a political solution was beginning to take shape. (Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Sophie Hares)((email@example.com; +33 1 4949 5219; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org@reuters.net)