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NATO puts off end to Libya air patrols

A Libyan man looks at a missile in a wooden crate in an ammunition storage bunker south of Sirte Oct. 26, 2011.
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BRUSSELS - NATO postponed a definite decision to end its bombing campaign in Libya as consultations continued Wednesday with the U.N. and the country's interim government over how and when to wind down the operation.

Last week, the alliance announced preliminary plans to phase out its mission on Oct. 31. NATO's governing body — the North Atlantic Council, or NAC — was expected to formalize that decision Wednesday.

Air patrols have continued in the meantime because some alliance members were concerned that a quick end to NATO's seven-month operation could lead to a resurgence in violence.

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On Wednesday, spokeswoman Carmen Romero said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was consulting with the United Nations and Libya's Transitional National Council.

"The NAC will meet with partners on Friday to discuss our Libya mission and take a formal decision," she said, adding that there was an "ongoing process" in the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday during a visit to Japan that some of Libya's leaders had called for NATO to continue its mission "during this interim as they try to establish some new governance."

Panetta declined to say whether the Obama administration intends to seek military ties with Libya's new government, amid uncertainty about Islamist influences there after the demise of strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

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NATO's 26,000 sorties, including 9,600 strike missions, destroyed about 5,900 military targets since they started on March 31. These included Libya's air defenses and more than 1,000 tanks, vehicles and guns, as well as Qaddafi's command and control networks.

The daily airstrikes enabled the rebels' ragtag forces to advance and take Tripoli two months ago. On Sunday, Libya's interim rulers declared the country liberated, launching the oil-rich nation on what is meant to be a two-year transition to democracy.

In Qatar, Libya's interim leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil attended an international planning conference Wednesday with representatives of Gulf states and Western powers that participated in the Libyan operation.

The meeting is expected to focus on how the allies could help the new authorities bring stability to the nation.

Qatar, a leading Arab backer of the uprising to topple Qaddafi's regime, contributed warplanes to the NATO-led air campaign and helped arrange a critical oil sale to fund the former rebels.

The United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Sweden also joined in the NATO war effort.