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Panetta: Libya Operation Nears End, But No Plan Yet

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a NATO summit in Brussels, Oct 5, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the NATO operation in Libya will likely end soon, but there is no plan in place yet for how and when to stop military action to protect civilians in the north African country. Panetta attended a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says any decision on when to stop the mission in Libya will depend on whether fighting continues and a threat remains against civilians in the country.

Panetta completed his meetings with NATO allies in Brussels Thursday, saying there is a consensus that the Libya mission could end soon. But he says first certain conditions must exist - especially in light of the fighting that continues between revolutionary forces and troops loyal to former leader Moammar Qadhafi.

“There are some important guidelines to look at in terms of the situation there in Libya," said Panetta. "Number one, what happens in Sirte. Number two, does the regime maintain the capability to attack civilians?”

Panetta said the decision also depends on whether the new government is able to provide security to civilians. Ultimately, he said, any decision will come after the commanders running the operation make their recommendations.

NATO's top military commander, U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, said the allies are looking at general conditions on the ground before they suggest drawing down the operation.

“It's not a set series of precise metrics," said Stavridis. "It's rather a sense of the situation.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rassmussen suggests the operation - now in its seven month - could go on for some time, but he believes likely not for long.

“It is clear that the end is in sight," said Rassmussen. "Qadhafi's forces are fighting for a lost cause. The threat to civilians is fading away. The recent positive developments in Libya are irreversible."

NATO has agreed to keep the multi-national operation, known as Unified Protector, going until December.