Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the NATO mission in Libya should continue as long there is fighting in the country. Panetta spoke in Egypt, where he stopped on Tuesday to offer Egyptian leaders help in returning the country to civilian rule.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised Egyptian leaders for the progress he said they are making in transitioning the country to democratic rule, following the popular uprising early this year that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Panetta spoke in Cairo as he headed to a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels where the subject of Libya is on the agenda. The U.S. defense secretary said the NATO mission to protect civilians should continue as long as there is fighting. “There continues to be fighting. Fighting in Sirt. Fighting in other areas. We still do not know where Qadhafi is. And so there are still some question marks with regards to the situation there," he said.
NATO has committed to keep the operation going for another three months. Panetta said he will speak with ministers of NATO allies in Brussels this week to get a sense of how they feel about keeping the operation going until the fighting ends between Libyan revolutionary forces and holdouts loyal to former leader Moammar Qadhafi. “I think the fighting has to end. They can not continue to have the level of fighting that they are still having there and be able to have the kind of governance issues that they are going to have to confront in order to establish stability in Libya," he said.
The U.S. official met with Egypt's interim leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the country's intelligence chief. He offered reassurances that the United States stands ready to assist them with the transition to democratic rule. The first phase of parliamentary elections is scheduled for next month.
Panetta also repeated the Obama administration's calls for emergency rule, imposed three decades ago, to be lifted soon. Egyptian leaders recently tightened that rule following a mob attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo. They are scheduled to lift it next year.
The U.S. defense secretary said the United States has urged Egyptian officials to release Ilan Grapel, an Israeli-American who is jailed in Egypt and accused of spying for Israel. But Panetta said he has not done anything personally nor is involved in any direct negotiations on the case. News reports in Israel, where Mr. Panetta visited earlier this week, had speculated that he would work for Grapel's release during his visit.