, TRIPOLI, Oct 31 – NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a surprise visit to Tripoli on Monday, saying he foresaw no major role left for the alliance in Libya hours before its air mission was due to end officially.
His visit comes seven months after Western powers fired the first barrage of missiles against Kadhafi forces in an air war that played a major role in ousting the veteran dictator.
He arrived in a C130 transport plane escorted by two French mirage fighter jets, an AFP correspondent who travelled with him said.
The no-fly zone and naval blockade, enforced by NATO since March 31, will end Monday at 11:59 pm Libyan time (2159GMT), as stipulated by a UN Security Council resolution last week that closed the mandate authorising military action.
Rasmussen told AFP that he would hold talks in Tripoli with National Transitional Council (NTC) leaders, including chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, “about their expectations as regards Libya’s future and in particular their roadmap for transition to democracy.”
The other major theme he would raise with Libya’s new leaders, he said, “will be their expectations as regards possible NATO assistance in the future.”
“Tonight at midnight Operation Unified Protector will end. But we have also clearly stated that if the new political leadership in Libya so requests, NATO stands ready to help them in their transformation to a democracy,” Rasmussen said.
For instance, he said, NATO could help could be given “when it comes to defence and security reform.”
“(But with) no NATO troops on the ground, I don’t foresee a major NATO role. It’s now for the United Nations to take the lead of the international assistance to the new authorities in Libya,” the NATO secretary general told AFP.
“But NATO has some expertise, in particular within defense and security sector reform. … So if Libya so requests, it would be quite natural to offer that expertise to the benefit of the Libyan people.”
The trip comes three days after NATO allies confirmed a decision to end the mission, declaring that the 28-nation alliance had fulfilled its UN mandate to protect civilians from a brutal repression.
The no-fly zone and naval blockade, enforced by NATO since March 31, will end at 11:59 pm Libyan time (2159GMT), as stipulated by a UN Security Council resolution last week that closed the mandate authorising military action.
Operation Unified Protector was terminated even though Abdel Jalil had asked for the alliance to stay until the end of the year, warning that Kadhafi loyalists still posed a threat.
But NATO deemed that civilians were safe from attacks after the new regime declared the country liberated following Kadhafi’s death and the fall of his hometown of Sirte on October 20.
Western strikes helped tip the balance of power in Libya’s conflict, preventing Kadhafi from crushing a revolt that erupted in mid-February.
The bombing raids stopped Kadhafi forces from marching into the rebel eastern city of Benghazi in February and pulverised the strongman’s air force.
The conflict then appeared headed into a stalemate as the ill-trained rebel forces struggled to fight their way west towards Tripoli. But with NATO destroying thousands of military targets, the NTC eventually took the capital in August, sending Kadhafi into hiding.
While NATO has steadfastly denied targeting Kadhafi during the campaign, it was an alliance air strike that hit his convoy as it fled Sirte, leading to his capture and killing on October 20.
Rasmussen insisted NATO did not know Kadhafi was in the convoy.
“No, we didn’t know. Kadhafi was not a target of our operations. We hit legitimate military targets and an armed convoy is a legitimate military target because it can constitute a threat to civilians,” he told AFP on Monday.
Facing global criticism over Kadhafi’s death, the NTC vowed last week to bring Kadhafi’s killers to justice in a sharp break with their previous insistence he was caught in the crossfire with his own loyalists.
A coalition led by the United States, France and Britain launched the first salvos in the air war on March 19, before handing over command of the mission to NATO on March 31.
The alliance, joined by Arab partners Qatar and United Arab Emirates, flew some 26,000 sorties and destroyed almost 6,000 targets during the conflict.
Rasmusssen said NATO had no confirmed civilian casualties caused by its operations.
“On one occasion we publicly declared that we could not exclude the possibility that we might have caused civilian casualties but the follow up investigation couldn’t confirm that,” he said.
“So it’s true to say, safe to say that we have no confirmed civilian casualties caused by NATO operations. There was a lot of Kadhafi propaganda. But also in that respect it has been a great success. We have fully implemented the United Nations mandate.”