BRUSSELS — NATO's chief said Thursday the alliance doesn't support U.S. and British suggestions that the U.N. mandate for the international military operation in Libya would allow arming rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi's troops.
NATO assumed command of all air operations over Libya early Thursday, taking over from the U.S., which had been eager to be rid of that responsibility. NATO Chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Stockholm that NATO's position is that "we are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the people."
Britain and the U.S. believe that existing U.N. Security Council resolutions on Libya could allow for foreign governments to arm the rebels, despite an arms embargo being in place.
The NATO secretary-general said he has "taken note of the ongoing discussions in a number of countries but as far as NATO is concerned ... we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo."
Fogh Rasmussen said the transition to its command was completed at 0600 GMT (2 a.m. EDT) Thursday, giving NATO sole responsibility for all aerial and naval operations in the region. A rebellion against Gadhafi's 42-year rule erupted last month, and international forces including the U.S., France and Britain stepped in March 19, just as it appeared Gadhafi was on the verge of crushing the revolt.
Gadhafi's forces were heavily bombarded, effectively turning the U.S.-led air assaults into an unacknowledged aerial arm of the ragtag rebel force fighting the government's army.
The NATO operation — code named Unified Protector — includes enforcement the U.N. Security Council resolution mandating an arms embargo on Libya, enforcement of a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians from Gadhafi's troops.
The takeover comes at a sensitive moment in the war between the rebels and loyalist forces. On Wednesday, Gadhafi's ground troops recaptured a strategic oil town and moved within striking distance of another major eastern city, nearly reversing the gains rebels made since the international airstrikes began.
The battlefield setbacks will likely increase calls for the international community to supply weapons to the lightly armed rebels.
The operation will be commanded by Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard from NATO's operational center in Naples, Italy. There was no word on how many airplanes and military staff would be involved, but officials say dozens of fighters, fighter-bombers, air refueling tankers, AWACS surveillance planes, maritime patrol aircraft and search-and-rescue helicopters will likely be required for the operation.
They will be based at a string of NATO bases along the Mediterranean, including Italy, France, Greece and Turkey.
"The transfer of authority on air assets is now complete," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said. "Everything that has been offered to us has been handed over.
"NATO is the only one issuing operational orders for the international effort," she added.
NATO's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, has approved the alliance's operations for up to three months. That period could be extended if necessary, officials said.
Associated Press writer Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this story.