NATO mapped out conditions Thursday to end the Libya air war, vowing to keep bombing until Kadhafi forces stop attacking civilians and the new leadership can ensure security across the country.
With Moamer Kadhafi diehards surrounded by the new leadership's forces in Sirte and Bani Walid, and the fallen Libyan leader in hiding, NATO defence ministers set out criteria for terminating the six-month-old mission.
"It's clear that the end is in sight. Kadhafi forces are fighting for a lost cause," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a news conference after two days of talk between NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
"We are determined to pursue our operation as long as threats persist, but to end it as soon as conditions permit," Rasmussen added.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said after a working lunch with counterparts that there was a "pretty clear consensus" among alliance ministers on four conditions that need to be met to terminate the mission.
The first condition, he said, is "what happens" in the battle for Kadhafi's birthplace, Sirte, one of the last two bastions of the former regime along with the southern desert town of Bani Walid.
The three other conditions included whether Kadhafi forces maintained the capability to attack civilians, whether Kadhafi himself could command fighters and whether the new leadership could secure the country.
Panetta was to travel to the operation's headquarters in Naples, Italy, later Thursday to confer with Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, who is in charge of the mission.
The military commanders will review the situation on the ground and provide recommendations, but the final decision to end the mission will rest in the hands of political leaders, Panetta said.
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Officials said NATO would coordinate the end of its mission with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council (NTC).
Intense fighting raged on Thursday in Sirte, some 360 kilometres (225 miles) east of Tripoli, after Kadhafi forces tried to break the siege by NTC forces.
"Sirte is extremely symbolic. But it is important that we no longer have pockets of resistance," said French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet. "Whether Kadhafi disappears from the scene is important, but it's not enough."
NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis, recommended to the ministers 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," a diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Kadhafi 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.
Responding to concerns over the humanitarian situation in Sirte following NATO and NTC operations, Rasmussen said he was confident NTC forces "will do all they can to prevent a humanitarian disaster."
NATO reported eight air strikes in Bani Walid, a desert town southeast of Tripoli, on Wednesday but no bombings in Sirte, compared to between 15 and 20 raids daily across Libya earlier in the mission.
Senior military officers overseeing the operation from Naples, Italy, are increasingly eager to call an end to the effort given the retreat of Kadhafi's troops, officials said.
But alliance members are waiting for a clear conclusion to fighting in Sirte and Bani Walid.