British Minister of Defence Liam Fox (C) is seen along with US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta (R) and United Arab Emirates Brigadier General Falah Al Qahtani (L) during the Nato Defence Ministers meeting at Nato headquarter in Brussels, on October 6, 2011. Nato defence ministers, joined by partners from the Middle East, hold a second and final day of talks on the missions in Afghanistan and Libya. – Photo by AFP

BRUSSELS: Nato allies on Thursday grappled with how quickly they could end their bombing campaign in Libya, where Qadhafi loyalists are cornered and the number of air strikes has declined in recent weeks.

With Moammer Qadhafi diehards surrounded by the new leadership's forces in Sirte and Bani Walid, and the fallen Libyan leader in hiding, diplomats are optimistic that the six-month-old air war could end in a matter of weeks.

Nato defence ministers discussed the prospects of successfully wrapping up the mission during two days of talks in Brussels, with officials insisting the campaign will continue as long as Qadhafi forces pose a threat to civilians.

“Sirte is extremely symbolic. But it is important that we no longer have pockets of resistance,” French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told reporters.

“We will stop when we no longer identify a resistance prohibiting the normal functioning of a state,” he said. “Whether Qadhafi disappears from the scene is important, but it's not enough.” Spanish Defence Minister Carme Chacon said Nato would continue fulfilling its UN mandate to protect civilians even though “the Qadhafi dictatorship is over.” Nato Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis, recommended to the ministers late Wednesday 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,” the diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Qadhafi 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.

Nato reported eight air strikes in Bani Walid, a desert town southeast of Tripoli, on Wednesday but no bombings in Qadhafi's hometown of Sirte in the east, compared to between 15 and 20 raids daily across Libya earlier in the mission.

The campaign began in March when Qadhafi 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.

Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the decision to halt the operation would hinge on the ability of National Transitional Council (NTC) forces to maintain order -- not on the fate of Qadhafi.

“The termination of the operation is not dependent on Colonel Qadhafi,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Officials said the alliance had to make a political judgement, balancing the need to prevent attacks on civilians while avoiding the impression of meddling.

“It will be a political decision, which will involve the UN and the NTC and it will be a question of an international concert of opinion that the time has come,” said a senior Nato official.

“The big risk is that one day we stop and the next day there is a massacre, in which case we would have failed.” Senior military officers overseeing the operation from Naples, Italy, were increasingly eager to call an end to the effort given the retreat of Qadhafi's troops, officials said.

But alliance members are waiting for a clear conclusion to fighting in Sirte and Bani Walid, where NTC troops are trying to finish off Qadhafi loyalists.

Success in Afghanistan, a war marking its 10th anniversary on Friday, also depends on the ability of local forces to ensure security for the population under a Nato plan to withdraw foreign combat troops by 2014.

“Transition is on track,” Rasmussen said, “and it will not be derailed.”

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