Libya mission continues as end of conflict nears

Washington DC
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NATO air strikes in Libya may finally be close to an end, more than 160 days after the North Atlantic alliance united with several Arab states to intervene in a bloody uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

Gaddafi's location was still unknown as this article went to press, but rebel groups had overrun his main compound and occupied most of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The air campaign that began on 17 March was not expected to immediately stand down. Pockets of Gaddafi loyalists continued fighting opposition forces, prompting one NATO air strike on 23 August on a multiple rocket launcher, the alliance said. NATO military operations are authorised to continue through mid-September.

It was not clear if NATO airpower would play a role in supporting a new government in Tripoli, after fighting on the ground finally ends.

"This mission isn't over, the mandate stands and NATO remains vigilant," NATO said on 23 August. "NATO extended the mandate in late June for another 90 days. Clearly we will continue to adapt in light of what's happening on the ground. Any adaptations will be done following advice from the military authorities, as ever, and decisions will have to be taken by the North Atlantic Council."

NATO air forces have notched up more than 20,000 sorties so far, but in a tactically limited role. The alliance was authorised only to enforce an arms embargo and a no-fly zone, as well as protect civilians from attacks by either side.

The operation has so far resulted in the loss of three NATO and Arab aircraft, but no fatalities. Losses included a US Navy Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout that was shot down, a United Arab Emirates Lockheed Martin F-16 that crashed on landing and a US Air Force Boeing F-15E that crashed in Libya after experiencing an unexplained mechanical failure.

The operation will be remembered as the combat debut for the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey also served with distinction, rescuing the downed F-15E crew, flying from the USS Kearsarge.