BRUSSELS — NATO defense ministers said Thursday that the alliance would end its six-month mission in Libya once deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi can no longer mount attacks against civilians — a point that they suggested was imminent even though Gadhafi has evaded capture.
"It is clear the end is in sight," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday. "The threat to civilians is fading away."
During a two-day meeting at NATO headquarters here, defense ministers tried to set parameters for ending the mission, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that the allies had reached a "pretty clear consensus" on what would constitute the right time to stand down.
Four key areas of tension needed to be resolved, Panetta said: Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, one of his last remaining strongholds, must be pacified; Gadhafi loyalists must no longer be able to attack civilians; Gadhafi's military capabilities must be totally destroyed; and the transitional government must be able to secure the country.
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If the balance of factors shows that Gadhafi is no longer a threat, the mission would end, said U.S. Adm. James Stravitis, NATO's supreme allied commander. The decision will not hinge on a "series of precise metrics," he said.
The transitional government is trying to consolidate its grip on the country even as Gadhafi and his son and former heir apparent, Saif al Islam, remain at large. On Thursday, Gadhafi appeared to resurface in an audio recording broadcast on a Syrian-based television channel, urging Libyans to "be courageous, rise up, go out in the streets" to oppose the new government.
It wasn't possible to verify whether the recording truly was Gadhafi, who transitional government officials believe is on the run in Libya's vast southern desert, under the protection of tribal groups.
While some Libyans — particularly tribes loyal to Gadhafi and former members of his government — have expressed worry that transitional government forces would target them for reprisal attacks, NATO leaders said that the threat to civilians, as they defined it, came only from pro-Gadhafi forces.
It was unclear whether the new Libyan leadership would have a say in the duration of the NATO mission. Some Libyans fear that ending the mission could weaken the transitional government as it struggles to stabilize the state. So far the ruling National Transitional Council has been plagued by missteps, including slow-moving reform measures, trigger-happy fighters and indecision about how Libya should be governed after the interim period.
Libya dominated the two-day session, with NATO officials saying that they were right to intervene when they did but lacked sufficient military intelligence, unmanned drone aircraft, aerial tankers and ammunition. The United States buttressed the effort with additional equipment, but after ceding control to NATO forces the mission appeared to drag, earning criticism from many Libyans who sought Gadhafi's immediate departure.
The mission, spurred by a seemingly imminent invasion by Gadhafi forces of the rebel capital of Benghazi, included nearly 25,000 air sorties in which NATO planes struck more than 5,000 targets.
But Libyans have also criticized the NATO mission for killing civilians, and NATO officials have said that they don't have any plans to investigate reports of civilian casualties in its air strikes.
The NATO-backed rebels seized the capital, Tripoli, in August. Since then the transitional council has struggled to gain control of a few remaining bastions of Gadhafi support, including Sirte, where international aid groups and fleeing residents report that the humanitarian situation is rapidly worsening.
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