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NATO: Libya Mission Will Last 'As Long As Necessary''

BERLIN - NATO foreign ministers have endorsed calls for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to leave power, amid divisions among alliance members on the campaign to protect civilians in the North African country.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) and British Foreign Secretary William Hague at the NATO meeting on Libya. At a meeting in Berlin today, NATO foreign ministers agreed the alliance would continue its Libya mission as long as was needed.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the mission was to protect civilians, and "we will do what it takes to fulfill that mission."

"We are committed to providing all necessary resources and maximum operational flexibility within our mandate," he said.

"A high operational tempo against legitimate targets will be maintained and we will exert this pressure as long as necessary."

Rasmussen set out three targets for the campaign to cease.

These included an end to all attacks and threats against civilians; verifiable evidence that Qaddafi's regime had withdrawn military forces, including snipers and mercenaries, from occupied areas; and that "full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all people in Libya in need of assistance" was permitted.

The bombing campaign against the North African country has so far failed to tip the balance in favor of the rebels fighting to end Qaddafi's reign, prompting France and United Kingdom to call on other alliance members to do more.

U.S. Remains Committed

The two countries have led the air strikes since NATO took over the leadership from the United States in implementing the United Nation resolution enforcing a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians.

Rasmussen stressed that NATO had the "necessary assets" to carry out the mission but admitted that the alliance needed "very sophisticated equipment" such as precision fighters for air to ground missions to avoid civilian casualties.

No pledges were made during the meeting but the Secretary-General said he had "heard indications" that give him hope. It is believed that such equipment could be provided by the United States, which so far has been reluctant to be heavily involved in the conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said before the meeting that the United States supported the military campaign but declined to speculate about a stronger American involvement.

"The U.S. is committed to our shared mission," she said. "We will strongly support the coalition until our work is completed."

No Word On Arming Rebels

Rasmussen remained reticent on whether it was in the mandate to arm the rebels fighting the regime, but he did point out that it was up to the opposition groups to decide on their daily tactics.

"It is for the Libyan people to decide the future of Libya," he said. He also added that there was no intention to interfere wityh Libyan politics and that "it is for the Libyans to shape the future of their own country."

The rebel leadership announced on April 13that they are "discussing weapons deals with countries that officially recognized the council," and claimed that they have been getting "positive replies."

Britain has already said it would send the rebels 1,000 sets of body armor in "non-lethal" aid from surplus British defense stocks.

Germany Keen To Play Down Rift

The run-up to the meeting had otherwise been dominated by a rift caused by Germany's lukewarm response to NATO's involvement in the conflict.

The host of the meeting has been keen to disassociate itself from the military campaign, notably abstaining on the vote in the UN last month.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was however keen to downplay any conflict and underlined that Germany had taken sides despite not being engaged in the war.

"On the issue of Libya, there is only one difference, the question how to reach a common goal," he said.

"Germany decided not to participate in a military mission in Libya but that certainly does not mean that we are neutral."

Westerwelle's French counterpart, Alain Juppe, also hit a diplomatic tone, noting that Germany and France shared the same objective when it came to the future of Libya.

"We have a common goal. We believe that the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom and democracy must be met and we must support that," he said.

"This goes together with Qaddafi's departure. A political solution must be found. On all this, we agree."

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