NATO has postponed until later this week a meeting that had been expected to formalise a decision to conclude the alliance's Libya mission at the end of the month after Libyan officials called for it to be kept going for longer.
Libya's interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said Wednesday NATO should stay involved in Libya until the end of this year to help prevent Muammar Gaddafi loyalists from leaving the country.
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.
NATO ambassadors had been expected to meet Wednesday to formalise a preliminary decision taken last week to end the mission on October 31. NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said this meeting had now been postponed.
The North Atlantic Council will meet with partners on Friday to discuss our Libya mission and take a formal decision, she said, referring to NATO's governing body.
Asked if NATO would stick to its decision to end the mission at the month-end, she said: That is the preliminary decision of the NAC. The formal decision will be taken this week.
As agreed, NATO continues to monitor the situation on the ground, and retains the capability to respond to any threats to civilians. The situation remains calm as the NTC continues to establish its authority, she said.
Romero said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in consultations with the United Nations and Libya's National Transitional Council about plans to conclude the mission.
NATO states took their decision last week based on military recommendations. The commander of 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.
Tuesday, NATO's 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 fighter jets, 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.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; editing by Rex Merrifield)