US defence secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that NATO air raids in Libya will continue as long as there is heavy ground combat between rebels and diehard supporters of ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
"As long as there is fighting that continues in Libya, I suspect that the NATO mission will continue," Panetta told reporters during a visit to Cairo.
When asked how long NATO's air campaign would last, he said: "I think fighting has to end."
The Pentagon chief said he could not predict when the air campaign would be concluded but expected to have a better sense after discussions in Brussels this week with fellow NATO defence ministers.
Allied air strikes began in March when Gaddafi's soldiers had rebels on the back foot, and helped tipped the balance in favour of the rebels who overran the capital Tripoli in August.
The poorly trained but now battle-hardened rebels have surrounded Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte, east of Tripoli, and Bani Walid southeast of the capital, with limited success so far in dislodging former regime fighters.
NATO planes struck targets in Sirte on Sunday, but Gaddafi loyalists were still in the fight, raining rockets and rocket-propelled grenades down on rebel positions the following day.
"Obviously there continues to be fighting by Sirte, by other areas" and "we still don't know where Gaddafi is," Panetta said. more