BRUSSELS: NATO can finish its air campaign in Libya within the next three months, the operations commander said Thursday, as remnants of the ousted regime are now isolated in three pockets of the country.
Asked for an assessment a day after NATO allies extended the mission by another 90 days, Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard told a press briefing: "I’m highly confident we can complete this mission well within this timeframe."
Bouchard said resistance among forces loyal to ousted dictator Moammer Qaddafi was restricted to "only three isolated pockets" — Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte with a strip of coastal access; an area in the town of Bani Walid to the west; and another section around Al Fugaha to the south.
However, after a six-month-old air war, the Canadian general said progress towards NATO’s final goal would be largely "based on NTC forces on ground… and also on the will of the regime forces to continue."
His comments came after fighters backing the National Transitional Council, Libya’s new rulers, said Thursday they had to halt an assault on one key pro-Qaddafi cluster for a week owing to a lack of ammunition and supplies.
Bouchard said pro-Qaddafi forces were still engaging in "immoral", "unethical" and "illegal" action, with civilians still being held as human shields in the most dangerous sites.
However, Bouchard added that Kahafi forces "are no longer able to conduct coordinated operations throughout Libya," while the number of people at risk from pro-Qaddafi military action had fallen to about 200,000 people.
The big coastal cities of Tripoli, Benghazi and Misrata were all now "back to normal," and the "rule of law and order has been restored," he said.
As a result, despite complaints on Wednesday from Human Rights Watch about conditions in border camps for refugees from the fighting, Bouchard said NATO did not consider the country to be suffering from a humanitarian crisis.
As for Qaddafi’s location, in Libya or elsewhere, Bouchard said he had no idea where the fugitive colonel was but stressed that the ousted strongman continues to "give orders" and "entice regime forces" to act.
"What we find right now is the media station in Syria is providing an outlet," he said, referring to Arrai TV, "but I do not know where (the broadcasts) are originating."
While NATO was "well aware of movements to the south," with armed convoys having crossed into Niger, "without troops on the ground, it is impossible for us to verify" who and what in the way of weapons are being transported.
Besides, "as far as my mandate is concerned, troops going away are no longer causing risk," and it is "left to individual governments of nations where troops are going to deal with that" and ensure weapons removed from Libya are taken back and destroyed.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday that warplanes would stay in the air as long as Libyan civilians are under threat but "not a day longer" than required, and that it could be called off "at any time."
The current 90-day mandate was due to expire on September 27.