With the end of the Libya war "in sight," NATO allies grappled Thursday with how quickly to wind down their bombing campaign, even as Kadhafi loyalists appeared determined to battle it out to the bitter end.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen vowed that the alliance would continue air strikes until civilians were no longer threatened by forces loyal to fallen leader Moamer Kadhafi.
"It's clear that the end is in sight. Kadhafi forces are fighting for a lost cause," he told a news conference after two days of talk of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
"We are determined to pursue our operation as long as threats persist, but to end it as soon as conditions permit."
With Moamer Kadhafi diehards surrounded by the new leadership's forces in Sirte and Bani Walid, and the fallen Libyan leader in hiding, diplomats were optimistic that the six-month-old air war could end in a matter of weeks.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said after a working lunch with counterparts that there was a "pretty clear consensus" among alliance ministers on four conditions that need to be met to terminate the mission.
The first condition, he said, is "what happens" in the battle for Kadhafi's birthplace, Sirte, one of the last two bastions of the former regime along with the southern desert town of Bani Walid.
The three other conditions included whether Kadhafi forces maintained the capability to attack civilians, whether Kadhafi himself could command fighters and whether the new leadership could secure the country.
NATO military commanders would provide recommendations and the final decision to end the mission would rest in the hands of political leaders, he said.
Officials said NATO would coordinate the end of its mission with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council (NTC).
Intense fighting raged on Thursday in Sirte, some 360 kilometres (225 miles) east of Tripoli, after Kadhafi forces tried to break the siege by NTC forces.
"Sirte is extremely symbolic. But it is important that we no longer have pockets of resistance," said French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet. "Whether Kadhafi disappears from the scene is important, but it's not enough."
NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis, recommended to the ministers that the mission continue until the new leadership consolidates control of the entire country, diplomats said.
Once the country is deemed secure, Stavridis suggested that the aerial and maritime surveillance missions carry on for two weeks until NATO is "sure that fighting has ended," a diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Kadhafi loyalists have made it tricky for NATO warplanes to bomb them by hiding in built-up areas, using civilians as human shields to deter air strikes, officials said.
Responding to concerns over the humanitarian situation in Sirte following NATO and NTC operations, Rasmussen said he was confident NTC forces "will do all they can to prevent a humanitarian disaster."
NATO reported eight air strikes in Bani Walid, a desert town southeast of Tripoli, on Wednesday but no bombings in Sirte, compared to between 15 and 20 raids daily across Libya earlier in the mission.
Senior military officers overseeing the operation from Naples, Italy, are increasingly eager to call an end to the effort given the retreat of Kadhafi's troops, officials said.
But alliance members are waiting for a clear conclusion to fighting in Sirte and Bani Walid.
The campaign began in March when Kadhafi troops had rebels on the back foot. NATO's strikes helped tip the balance in favour of a loose coalition of opponents who in August overran the capital Tripoli, winning international recognition.
by Laurent Thomet
(c) 2011 AFP
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