BRUSSELS/TRIPOLI (Reuters) – French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Friday rebuffed criticism of Europe's role in the Libyan war by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, saying Washington's allies were "doing the work".
The spat is the latest sign of tensions among NATO allies in their campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi, with Britain, France and others rejecting an Italian call earlier this week for a suspension of hostilities to allow humanitarian aid access.
It broke out as President Barack Obama faces domestic pressure over U.S. involvement in the war, with the House of Representatives due to vote as early as Friday on a proposal to cut off funds for U.S. hostilities in Libya.
"It was particularly inappropriate for Mr. Gates to say that, and what is more, completely false, given what is going in Libya," Sarkozy told reporters at an EU summit in Brussels.
"There are certainly other moments in history when he could have said that, but not when Europeans have courageously taken the Libyan issue in hand, and when France and Britain, with their allies, for the most part, are doing the work."
While the United States has stepped back from a leading role in the strike mission NATO took over on March 31, it has continued to provide essential assets, including reconnaissance planes, air-to-air refueling planes and armed drones.
In a June 10 valedictory speech tapping into longstanding U.S. resentment of what it sees as Europe's lack of military muscle, Gates said the Libyan effort had further exposed limitations, with an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day struggling to launch about 150.
"I think his retirement may have led him to not examine the situation in Libya very closely because, whatever people want to say, I don't have the impression that the Americans are doing the bulk of the work in Libya," Sarkozy said.
Gates is due to retire at the end of the month.
PRESSURE ON OBAMA
U.S. lawmakers could vote Friday on a proposal to ban funding for U.S. participation in combat missions such as drone attacks in the NATO-led air war, according to Republicans.
It is unclear if the measure can pass and Senate approval is unlikely. But criticism has been building in Congress, especially in the Republican-led House, of U.S. involvement in Libya and Obama's refusal to ask Congress for its consent.
The NATO-led bombing campaign has so far failed to dislodge Gaddafi and is causing concerns about civilian casualties, its financial cost and even its impact on world oil supplies as Libyan exports to the world market are cut off.
The loss of Libyan oil output since February represented a greater disruption to global oil supply than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, an International Energy Agency official told Reuters Insider TV.
IEA Deputy head Richard Jones said the market was facing a possible shortfall of 1.8 million barrels per day for the remainder of June and 1.7 million for the next quarter.
There are signs of strain on Gaddafi too, with authorities this week issuing instructions for ordinary people to follow "to deal with the fuel shortage", including recommendations that motorists save fuel by curbing their speed.
"LIBYAN OASIS" FOR GADDAFI?
Analysts say part of the NATO strategy now appears to be directed at paving the way for a successful local uprising against Gaddafi in the capital Tripoli, where opponents run the gauntlet of tight security to stage "flash" protests.
In a defiant state television audio broadcast this week, Gaddafi said he would fight until the end, but a rebel spokesman was quoted on Friday as saying indirect negotiations were being pursued that could allow him to stay in Libya.
"We have no objection to him retreating to a Libyan oasis under international control," France's Le Figaro quoted Mahmoud Shammam, spokesman of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), as saying.
NTC Vice-Chairman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga confirmed to Reuters the existence of indirect talks, specifying: "The NTC is not contacting Gaddafi's regime. It's the other way around...
"If the NTC believes that there is a political solution that involves the Gaddafi regime stepping down, and that includes the entire regime, to stop the bloodshed of innocent people that are being killed every day in Libya, then it may look at this political solution."
In the latest of a string of defections that include Libya's foreign minister and top energy official, 19 police and army officers were among a group of Libyan refugees who arrived in Tunisia by boat on Thursday, Tunisian news agency TAP reported.
Gaddafi allies have strongly denounced such defections.
"Anyone who defects or refuses to take up arms is an apostate ... and this applies to all Libyans," preacher Mohamed al-Matri said in a live broadcast of the Friday sermon from Cordoba mosque in the town of Sirte.
"Anyone who writes something on the wall, distributes tracts or spreads a rumor in favor of the Jews and Christians becomes one of them... They are enemies of Allah and Muslims."
In Benghazi, dozens of rebel supporters freed by Gaddafi arrived on a ship from Western Libya in an exchange that could mark the beginning of broader talks between the adversaries.
"These are mainly civilians...Among them there are 51 people who were detained in Tripoli but were released by the government there so we brought them back," said Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Benghazi.
A rebel spokesman said the rebel authority had earlier released five Gaddafi prisoners as part of the same transfer
European leaders meeting in Brussells agreed that only an uprising in Tripoli could end the war, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sai.
Speaking after an EU summit in Brussels, Berlusconi said he hoped the conflict would end soon.
"We urge a political mediation," he told reporters.
(Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat, Maria Golovnina in Benghazi; writing by Mark John)
Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.