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NATO "hopeful" of more planes in Libya soon

BERLIN - NATO failed for a second day to find new ground-attack aircraft for the fight against Muammar Qaddafi's forces in Libya but Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday he expects the additional planes soon.

NATO's top military commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, has said there is a growing need for precision attack aircraft to avoid civilian casualties as Qaddafi's forces camouflage themselves and hide in populated areas to avoid Western airstrikes.

American officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the details, said the commander is looking for about eight to 10 additional planes.

The alliance is struggling to overcome differences over the Libya mission, with Britain and France seeking more strikes by other NATO nations, particularly the U.S. The U.S. says it sees no need to change what it calls a supporting role in the campaign — even though it has still been flying a third of the missions — and many other NATO nations have rules preventing them from striking Qaddafi's forces except in self-defense.

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Fogh Rasmussen said that the Berlin meetings had ended with no specific pledges from the allies for the additional planes, but that he received "indications that nations will deliver what is needed."

"I'm hopeful that we will get the necessary assets in the very near future," he said.

NATO airstrikes began three weeks ago, aimed at protecting Libyan civilians from attacks from forces loyal to Qaddafi.

U.S., British and French leaders pledged in a joint statement Friday to maintain the military campaign until Moammar Qaddafi leave office — something Fogh Rasmussen said NATO fully supports.

"NATO is absolutely determined to continue its operation for as long as there are attacks against Libyan civilians, and it's impossible to imagine that threat will disappear with Qaddafi in power," he said.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton took part in an opening session Friday, and the group agreed to schedule an informal EU-NATO meeting to talk further about the Libya situation. No other details were announced.

Friday's talks also included meetings with officials from Ukraine and Georgia, and with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a meeting of the NATO-Georgia commission that Washington continues to support Georgia's sovereignty and is urging Russia to comply with a cease-fire agreement after the 2008 war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which calls for both sides to pull back forces to pre-conflict locations.

"We continue to urge Russia at the highest levels to comply with its obligations under the 2008 cease-fire agreement, and to reduce tensions in the region," she said in prepared remarks.

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