- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Russia’s defense minister called for an immediate cease-fire in Libya on Tuesday, 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 already is “going to great lengths” to avoid civilian deaths, and he charged that Libyan dictator 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 Libyan military assault 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 that 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 U.S. over plans for a missile defense system in Europe.

Mr. Gates wondered aloud about why the Russian believes that 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 Russian 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 U.S. 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 like 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 Col. Gadhafi’s “crimes against his own people.”

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



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