Libya's interim leader urged NATO Wednesday to maintain its involvement in the country until the end of the year, though the Western military alliance that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi is keen to wind up its formal mission within days.
With Gaddafi's son and heir-apparent believed still at large and seeking to flee following his father's killing last week, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), said he wanted NATO help in stopping Gaddafi loyalists escaping justice.
But at the Brussels headquarters of the alliance, whose air strikes and intelligence backed the motley rebel forces for eight months at substantial financial cost, NATO officials recalled that their U.N. mandate was to protect civilians, not target individuals.
A meeting of NATO ambassadors, postponed from Wednesday to Friday to allow for further discussion with the NTC and United Nations, was still due to endorse a preliminary decision to halt the Libya mission on October 31, a spokeswoman for the bloc said.
Speaking in Qatar, the most active Arab backer of the Western move against Gaddafi, Abdel Jalil told reporters: We look forward to NATO continuing its operations until the end of the year.
He added: We seek technical and logistics help from neighboring and friendly countries.
The Libyan war, which saw Gaddafi's power extinguished in late August at a cost of no casualties for NATO forces, has been proclaimed a triumph for Western intervention. But the expense of thousands of air strikes, led by French and British jets with U.S. logistical support, has left NATO governments keen to end it now.
Asked if NATO ambassadors Friday would stick to the decision to end the mission at the end of the month, spokeswoman Carmen Romero said: That is the preliminary decision ... The formal decision will be taken this week.
She added that, for the time being, NATO continues to monitor the situation on the ground, and retains the capability to respond to any threats to civilians.
Romero said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in consultations with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council about plans to conclude the mission.
NATO states took their decision last week based on military recommendations. The commander the Libya mission Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said Monday he saw virtually no risk of forces loyal to Gaddafi mounting successful attacks to regain power and NATO believed NTC forces were able to handle security threats.
NATO states have been keen to see a quick conclusion to a costly effort that has involved more than 26,000 air sorties and round-the-clock naval patrols at a time when defence budgets are under severe strain due to the global economic crisis.
NATO has said it does not intend to keep forces in the Libyan region after concluding its mission and has repeatedly stated that its U.N. mandate is to protect civilians, not to pursue individuals -- although Gaddafi himself was captured after his convoy was hit in a NATO air strike.
Tuesday, NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy James Appathurai said he expected the alliance to confirm its decision to end the mission. I don't expect that there will be a change to that decision, he said.
NATO has already begun winding down the mission, and diplomats have said the majority of NATO equipment, including warplanes, has already been withdrawn.
A NATO statement Tuesday said operations in the interim would involve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, although NATO would retain the capability to conduct air strikes if they were needed.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, long seen as his father's heir-apparent, was believed to be in the southern desert near Niger and Algeria and was set to flee Libya using a false passport, an NTC official said.
Like his father, he is wanted by both the new Libyan leadership and the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Military experts stress, however, that even NATO's extensive aerial and satellite power has little chance of detecting fleeing convoys across the expanses of the Sahara, while the remote desert is also out of realistic range for any mission to strike such a group of vehicles, even if NATO's mandate were interpreted to allow it.
(Reporting by Regan Doherty in Doha and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)