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NATO not halting Libya air war yet, Leon Panetta says

Despite pressure from some NATO allies to halt the bombing in Libya, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Thursday said alliance warplanes will keep flying as long as combat persists between the provisional government’s fighters and forces loyal to deposed leader Moammar Kadafi.

“If there continues to be serious fighting, if there continues to be threats to the civilian population, then I’m sure this mission will continue,” Panetta told reporters after two days of meetings with defense chiefs and military commanders at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters here.

During the talks, U.S. and French officials pressed to sustain the air war at least until the provisional government’s forces capture Surt, Kadafi’s hometown. The officials warned that stopping the airstrikes before the city falls could encourage Kadafi loyalists, who are waging an increasingly desperate battle to hold the coastal enclave.

Other NATO members privately urged ending the operation sooner, arguing that the alliance in effect had achieved its stated mission of protecting Libyan civilians even if fighting continues in scattered pockets.

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Some nations are worried about the mounting expense of the air war, which began March 19. But those concerns were largely papered over in public this week.

NATO has sharply scaled back its airstrikes in recent weeks, in part because fewer targets are available in the shrinking areas where fighting still is underway.

Panetta said a decision to halt the NATO operation, which also includes enforcing a no-fly zone and a naval blockade along the Libyan coast, would come only after senior military commanders recommend doing so.

He said the decision would hinge on the end of fighting in Surt, whether Kadafi loyalists maintain “the capacity to attack civilians” and whether the former ruler, who was driven from power in August but remains at large, can still command fighters.

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At this point, it’s unclear whether Kadafi is in contact with his fighters, a NATO official said.

Adm. James Stavridis, the top alliance commander, said he is “not trying to establish a precise set of metrics” for when to recommend a bombing halt, which would have to be endorsed by civilian leaders of NATO.

Surt seems likely to fall soon to the provisional government’s forces, who now control the port and the main airfield.

“It’s clear that the end is in sight,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a news conference. But he said the alliance would pursue its operation “as long as the threat persists.”

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Fighting also continues in the town of Bani Walid.

Panetta left Brussels later Thursday for talks in Naples, Italy, with the operational commanders of the Libya mission.

david.cloud@latimes.com


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