NATO's bombing campaign in Libya, now in its seventh month, will continue despite the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi's regime, alliance officials said Thursday.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said the airstrikes will not cease until all remaining pockets of resistance are suppressed and the new government asks for them to end.
Although the former rebels now control most of Libya, some regions remain under control of pro-Gadhafi forces. These include Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, the city of Bani Walid and parts of the south.
"Sirte has an extremely symbolic value, but it's not all of Libya," Longuet said as he arrived for the second and final day of a conference of defence ministers of NATO nations. "There is pro-Gadhafi resistance in Bani Walid and dispersed resistance in the south of the country."
NATO has carried out more than 9,300 airstrikes against Gadhafi's forces since the campaign started in March. The military alliance has been criticized for allegedly overstepping UN Security Council resolution that created a no-fly zone and authorized the protection of civilians caught up in the fighting.
'Strategic patience is needed'
Discussions at the ministers' meeting have focused on Libya and Afghanistan, where NATO is in the process of extricating itself from a 10-year war against Taliban insurgents.
"This is an important moment for Afghanistan," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday. "Transition is on track and it will not be derailed."
NATO and its partner nations have start drawing down their 140,000 troops and turning over security responsibilities to Afghanistan's army and police. The process is due to end in 2014, when foreign troops end their combat role.
Although outnumbered, the Taliban have mounted a series of high-profile attacks that have brought into question NATO's claim that it has the upper hand in the war and that the bloodshed is decreasing. The United Nations released a report last month saying the monthly level of violence in the country was significantly higher than in 2010.
'We barely manage to drive in, deliver the items and get out because the security situation is so bad and we can be targeted and may be caught in the shooting.' —Dibeh Fakhr, International Committee of the Red Cross, on the Sirte situation
"Strategic patience is needed," German defence minister Thomas de Maiziere said. "It is more complicated to climb down a tree then to climb up."
On Wednesday, ministers discussed plans to co-operate more closely and pool their resources in order to make up for the shortfalls that have plagued the alliance's operations in Libya and Afghanistan.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned NATO allies that they should not rest on any laurels from the success of the ongoing military campaign in Libya, and that a cash-strapped America cannot always foot the bill when the alliance falls short.
The operation revealed embarrassing gaps in European military abilities that were mostly filled by the United States, and shortfalls in such basic supplies as ammunition.
In order to reduce dependence on the U.S., NATO wants to create its own system of air surveillance using U.S.-made Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. Member nations are also planning to beef up the alliance's strategic air transport and aerial refuelling capabilities.
But it remains unclear whether these programs can be implemented at a time when defence budgets in Europe and the United States are being slashed as part of public spending cuts and other austerity measures designed to deal with the worsening economic crisis.
MPs voted Sept. 26 in support of extending Canada's military mission in Libya by three months, bringing it up to the end of 2011.
Red Cross delivers aid to civilians in Sirte
On the Libyan front on Thursday, the International Red Cross said it has delivered baby milk, diapers and other humanitarian aid to civilians in Gadhafi's besieged hometown, seeking to ease shortages amid rapidly deteriorating conditions.
Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said two trucks entered Sirte and handed over the goods, which also included medical supplies, hygiene kits and clean drinking water, to representatives of families remaining in the Mediterranean coastal city. It was the ICRC's third successful delivery since Saturday, she said.
Sirte, 400 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, is the most important of the pro-Gadhafi cities that are still holding out against Libya's new rulers and its defenders have put up a fierce resistance for three weeks, with the two sides trading artillery, tank and mortar shelling.
Revolutionary forces claim Gadhafi's fighters are using a conference centre and a hospital as bases, but Fakhr said the ICRC has been unable to confirm those claims because the situation was too dangerous to tour the hospital during previous trips on Saturday and Monday, when they delivered 50 oxygen tanks.
She said ICRC representatives were communicating with both sides and giving the aid to elders appointed as representatives of the families remaining in Sirte for distribution.
"We barely manage to drive in, deliver the items and get out because the security situation is so bad and we can be targeted and may be caught in the shooting," Fakhr said, speaking from a mosque that is being used as a field hospital on the outskirts of the city.
Fakhr said the ICRC was "very concerned" about the humanitarian situation inside the city but didn't have a number of civilians who were still inside.
She said most people were fleeing from the east of the city toward Benghazi and this week the ICRC distributed aid to 18,000 people living in camps in that area.
Revolutionary forces from Benghazi, meanwhile, have pushed farthest into Sirte, occupying a hotel near the city center and using it as a base to shell the centre of town.
Dr. Nuri al-Naari said 70 revolutionary forces have been killed in the past 15 days of fighting in and around Sirte.