- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia‘s defense minister on Tuesday called for an immediate cease-fire in Libya, telling Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that it is the best way to avoid civilian casualties.

Speaking after meeting with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Mr. Gates responded that the coalition is already “going to great lengths” to avoid civilian deaths, and he charged that the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, is lying about claims of casualties. Mr. Gates also insisted that significant military fighting would recede in the next few days once Libya’s air defenses are taken out.

The prospect of civilian deaths has become a point of contention for the Russians, even triggering a rare dispute between the top two leaders. It was unclear Tuesday what impact it may have on the ongoing military action, but the explosive issue further complicated Mr. Gates‘ meetings with Russian leaders, who are already at odds with the United States over plans for a missile defense system in Europe.

Mr. Gates wondered aloud about why the Russians believe so many civilians are being killed.

“I’m a little curious, frankly, about the tone that has been taken,” Mr. Gates told reporters traveling with him shortly after his meeting with Mr.  Serdyukov at the Defense Ministry. “It’s perfectly evident that the vast majority, if not nearly all, of the civilian casualties have been inflicted by Gadhafi.”

He said most of the targets have been in isolated, unpopulated areas, adding that “it’s almost as though some people here are taking at face value Gadhafi’s claims about the number of civilian casualties — which as far as I’m concerned are just outright lies.”

Mr. Gates met with Mr. Serdyukov before a scheduled session with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But he was not expected to see Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is out of the country. On Monday, Mr. Putin railed against the strikes on Libya, likening them to “a medieval call for a crusade.”

Mr. Putin appeared to link the Libya action to the ongoing debate between the United States and Russia over the planned European missile defense shield, suggesting that it proved Russia is correct to heighten its own defenses.

Mr. Medvedev, however, issued a rare rebuke of Mr. Putin’s statements, saying that using an expression such as “crusades” is unacceptable. And he defended Russia‘s move to abstain last week on the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action in Libya, saying the U.N. move was a legitimate response to Mr. Gadhafi’s “crimes against his own people.”

Standing next to Mr. Gates at the end of their meeting, Mr. Serdyukov tiptoed carefully through the subject, saying through an interpreter that Russia backs the U.N. resolution, but it envisions only measures to protect civilians.

Unfortunately, he said, there have been “real hostilities” that are “destroying civilian facilities and killing civilians,” and that should not be allowed to happen. An immediate cease-fire, he said, is the surest way to gain the security of the civilians.

“I think he threaded his way pretty well” between Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin, Mr. Gates told reporters afterward. “It sounded to me like his comments were closer to President Medvedev.”

Russia‘s abstention on the resolution essentially allowed the military action to go forward. But as the coalition pounded Libyan air defenses and military arms for the third day, it was unclear whether Mr. Putin’s protest was public posturing or if it actually signaled remorse about the vote.

Meanwhile, even as the United States vows to relinquish the lead in the Libyan operation, there was discord in Europe over whether it should be turned over to NATO. U.S. officials, including Mr. Gates, have said the U.S. expects to hand over leadership, either to NATO or to the British and French, in a matter of days.

Mr. Gates said Tuesday that he still believes the transition will go forward within a few days, and that diplomacy was moving along. Transferring control of the mission is complicated, he said.

“We haven’t done something like this, kind of on the fly before,” Mr. Gates said. “So it’s not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it sorted out.”

Turkey blocked NATO’s participation in the operation, while Italy issued a veiled threat to withdraw the use of its bases unless the alliance is put in charge.