REPORTING FROM BRUSSELS -- Despite pressure from some NATO allies to halt the bombing in Libya, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday that 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 in Brussels.
During the talks, U.S. and French officials pushed to sustain the air war at least until rebel fighters capture Surt, Kadafi’s hometown. Other NATO members privately urged a quicker halt to the operation, arguing that the alliance had essentially achieved its mission of protecting Libyan civilians, even if fighting continues in scattered pockets.
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.
Surt seems likely to fall soon. Kadafi's foes now control the port and the main airfield, a NATO official said. Kadafi loyalists are holding a small number of civilians as hostages, using them as “human shields,” he said.
“It’s clear that the end is in sight,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a news conference. But he added that NATO would pursue its operation “as long as the threat persists.”
Panetta left Brussels later Thursday for talks in Naples, Italy, with the operational commanders of the Libya mission.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta leaves a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Oct. 6, 2011. Credit: Pool photo