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Fighters point to a NATO jet on Oct.7, 2011 in Sirte, Libya.

Majid Saeedi/Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

NATO is not quite ready to call it quits in Libya, although its air strikes have tapered off sharply in the past month even as loyalists to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi make a last-ditch effort to defend his hometown of Sirte against the rebels who now rule the country.

A meeting in Brussels on Wednesday of the North Atlantic Council, which is made up of ambassadors from the 28 member countries, ended with no decision on whether it is time to end the nearly seven-month bombing mission.

"NATO nations agree that we are very close to the end and that the mission will end as soon as conditions permit," alliance spokeswoman Carmen Romero said. "Allies also agree that we are not there yet."

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Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, the Royal Canadian Air Force officer commanding the campaign in Libya, did not address the meeting with a recommendation as had been expected. The council meets several times a week and has been devoting at least one of those sessions to the Libya campaign.

Fighting is continuing in the wrecked city of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, where rebel forces appear to have cornered pro-Gadhafi fighters in two small neighbourhoods. Much of the city was reported to be in ruins from more than a month of tit-for-tat shelling and bombardments.

Col. Gadhafi remains at large. In an interview this week with the London-based newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, Libya's acting prime minister said he believes the ousted leader is on the move between Niger, Algeria and the southern Libyan desert.

The pace and intensity of NATO airstrikes has dropped dramatically since the capital, Tripoli, was taken by rebel forces in late August. Warplanes have struck nearly 6,000 targets – heavy weapons, artillery, tanks and ammunition depots – since NATO took over the Libya mission from Britain, France and the United States at the end of March.

This week's sorties were mainly to search out possible targets. Since Monday NATO aircraft have bombed just once, hitting nine military vehicles around the town of Bani Walid.

A decision to call off the campaign, initially aimed at protecting civilians from Col. Gadhafi's soldiers and mercenaries, is both a political and military call.

The interim government's forces have repeatedly said they are on the verge of complete military victory, but have not been able to declare it. Bani Walid, for instance, was declared taken a week ago.

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But a NATO stand-down will also depend in large part on whether the alliance is confident Libya's new rulers to handle any new threats on their own.

That remains an open question. Much of Col. Gadhafi's arsenal of surface-to-air missiles and other weapons, purchased over a period of decades, is missing. While many army officers have defected or aided the rebels since the armed revolution began in February, the country also has no standing military in any conventional sense.

The battles for Sirte and Bani Walid were largely improvised ground assaults backed by NATO air strikes. Fighters are still organized into militias made up of volunteers and unemployed men from particular cities or neighbourhoods, as they were from the start, and a centralized command is still being negotiated.

"The threat is diminishing day by day, but it's still there," another NATO official said. "We are still finding that Gadhafi's troops can try to organize something, but the size of the remnants is getting less."

A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said NATO should not be in a rush to end its mission.

"The NTC is becoming more solid as an interim government,' he said, referring to the rebels' National Transitional Council. "But Gadhafi is still out there somewhere, and so are people who stand to lose a lot in the new Libya and could have access to his heavy weapons."

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France, Britain, Canada, Denmark and Belgium have taken the lead in the NATO military campaign. There are some signs of fatigue among other countries that initially provided aircraft such as Spain, which has moved its fighter jets back to base.

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