THE military campaign against Libya suffered its biggest fracture to date yesterday when Italy's foreign minister surprised European and NATO colleagues by calling for an "immediate suspension" of hostilities.
Franco Frattini expressed concern over recent civilian casualties and called for an "aid corridor" to be established, including on the conflict's front lines in cities such as Misrata.
"The humanitarian end of military operations is essential to allow for immediate aid," he said. His comments were rejected by NATO, Britain and France. But they will add to concerns expressed by politicians from NATO countries and senior British military figures over the war's progress and how long forces will be tied up in fighting Muammar Gaddafi.
On the ground there are also increasing fears that the war has reached stalemate, with the entrenched rebels unable to advance beyond Gaddafi strongholds on the roads to Tripoli.
Italy has played a secondary role in the NATO bombing campaign against Libya compared to Britain and France, but its air bases are the main launch pads.
Earlier this week NATO admitted for the first time to having caused civilian casualties when an air strike accidentally hit a residential area of Tripoli, killing nine people including a young child.
Mr Frattini outlined his concerns in an address to parliament and to fellow European foreign ministers.
"We cannot run the risk of killing civilians," he said. "This is not good at all."
Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, whose support was crucial to winning UN approval for the campaign, also expressed "misgivings". "You can't have a decisive ending," he said.
"Now is the time to do whatever we can to reach a political solution."
In the UK, Downing Street pointed to an EU statement agreed by all members, including Italy, this week that said: "The EU is unwavering in its commitment to protecting Libyan civilians, including through the intensification of pressure on the Libyan regime."
A spokesman said: "We have got a strong and broad coalition that is fully committed to carrying out the mission."
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the head of NATO, said: "NATO will continue this mission because if we stop countless more civilians could lose their lives." But more cracks in the alliance could appear at a meeting of the European Council starting today in Brussels.
Growing numbers of countries complain that military contributions to NATO are overshadowing non-military support to the rebels and preparations for a post-Gaddafi government. (© Daily Telegraph, London)