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Pentagon Official discusses Libya no-fly zone

Amid reports from Libya that indicate Moammar Gadhafi’s troops are gaining the upper hand over the opposition, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell spoke during an MSNBC interview today about the situation in Libya and possible responses.

Morrell, who has just returned from accompanying Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to NATO for discussions on the situation in North Africa, said NATO defense ministers agreed “to continue planning for any and all military options, including a no-fly zone.”

What happens with the no-fly zone will depend on a political decision that has not been made yet, Morrell said.

“However, as we saw over the weekend, now the Arab League is calling for it,” he added. “So that will undoubtedly factor into the decision-making of the president and other European leaders as they go forward.”

Three American ships remain off the Libyan coast: the USS Kearsarge, the USS Ponce and the USS Barry. Other NATO nations also have positioned ships in the Mediterranean.

“But remember,” Morrell said, “this is to monitor the arms embargo that the U.N. put in place, as well as to provide humanitarian assistance if needed.”

If the decision is made to establish a no-fly zone, the U.S. military can make it work, Morrell said.

“I don't think this has ever been a question of can we do this,” he said. “I mean, this is the United States military. Even though we have significant commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world, Secretary Gates has made it abundantly clear we can do this.”

NATO allies would help, Morrell noted. “It’s important that we not do it alone,” he said. “But this is not a question of ‘can.’ It’s a question of whether we should. And that’s a decision that the president will make at some point.”

Meanwhile, two more U.S. military flights flew Egyptian civilians home from Tunisia over the weekend, Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan said today.

A March 12 flight out of Djerba airlifted 60 Egyptians back to Cairo, and a flight yesterday had 79 passengers. The Egyptians escaped fighting inside Libya and were stranded in Tunisia.

To date, 13 such flights have airlifted 982 passengers, Lapan said. The C-130 flights began March 5, and there are none scheduled today, he added.

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