REPORTING FROM BRUSSELS -- NATO is close to halting its 6-month-old bombing campaign in Libya and may do so even if Moammar Kadafi, the country's deposed strongman, remains at large, the alliance chief said Wednesday.
"We are close to completing our mission," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters after defense chiefs from member nations reviewed the operation at alliance headquarters here. "The termination of the operation is not dependent on Col. Kadafi. He's not the target of our operations."
Kadafi has been in hiding since rebels overran Tripoli in August. Libya's ruling National Transitional Council, likely with assistance from Western intelligence agencies, has mounted a manhunt to find Kadafi that is focusing on the Sahara desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria.
NATO has insisted publicly since the bombing campaign began that it was not targeting Kadafi and is not involved in the search for him. But as long as he remains at large, Libya’s stability remains in question.
Fighting between rebels and pro-Kadafi fighters persists in Kadafi’s hometown, Surt, and a few other Libyan towns, a NATO officer said.
Rasmussen indicated that NATO might end its air campaign before the fighting ceases. The decision would depend on an assessment of the security situation and on the Libyan governing council's "ability to protect the civilian population," the NATO officer said.
U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's top commander, laid out options for halting the bombing campaign at Wednesday’s meeting, the officer said. National Transitional Council officials are also in Brussels, consulting with the alliance on a timetable for halting the bombing, he said.
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, lower left, poses with member nations' defense chiefs during a meeting at the alliance headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. Credit: Yves Herman / Reuters