BRUSSELS, Belgium – NATO said Tuesday the situation in the Libyan capital of Tripoli remains very dangerous and the alliance will continue its operations over the country, bombing forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi if they keep fighting.
But spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie told reporters that pro-Gadhafi forces are severely degraded and losing strength through desertions and defections.
“Our military mission has not changed. It remains to protect the civilian population, enforce the no-fly zone and the arms embargo,” he said of the U.N. Security Council-authorized military action to protect civilians. “We will conduct strikes wherever necessary to protect the population of Libya.”
Lavoie spoke at a news conference in Naples, Italy, also taking questions from reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels by video link.
“The situation in Tripoli is still very serious and very dangerous,” Lavoie said. “Snipers, shelling, missiles could do much damage, but they can’t change the course of history or the outcome of this campaign.”
Gadhafi’s whereabouts remain unknown, and Lavoie said he didn’t “have a clue” about where he is, adding “I’m not sure it really does matter.”
In Brussels, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said NATO might play a role in Libya in the post-Gadhafi period.
“NATO is willing to help in a supporting role if needed and if requested,” Lungescu said.
She said the alliance had gained much experience in security sector reforms in Eastern Europe during the post-Communist period. “One can put that experience at the disposal of Libya and other regional countries, if requested and if needed.”
Earlier, France’s foreign minister said he hoped NATO’s air operation over Libya would end “as soon as possible” – once rebel fighters topple Gadhafi and his forces for good. Alain Juppe said France and Britain were responsible for about 75 to 80 per cent of NATO air operations over Libya in recent months.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking during a visit to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, said air operations would continue until security in the country is fully restored.
“What is important is that Libya’s territorial integrity be secured,” Turkey’s Anatolia news agency quoted Davutoglu as saying in reference to the alliance’s air campaign in Libya.
A U.S.-led coalition launched the first air strikes against Libya on March 19. At the end of that month, NATO assumed command of the operation. Alliance warplanes have flown nearly 20,000 flights since then, and carried out 7,500 strike sorties.
The alliance says it has destroyed more than 800 of Gadhafi’s tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces.
Rebels and pro-regime troops were fighting street battles in several parts of Tripoli, a day after opposition fighters swept into the capital with relative ease, claiming to have most of it under their control.
Lungescu played down the importance of Gadhafi’s son’s unexpected appearance at a Tripoli hotel, after the rebels claimed he had been captured.
“A brief appearance in the dead of night doesn’t indicate somebody in control of the capital or anything at all,” she said. “It shows that they are on the run (and) as we’ve seen in the Balkans recently, those on the run from international justice can do so for some time, but they can’t hide.”
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.