BRUSSELS – NATO will assume command of all aerial operations — including ground attacks — in Libya from the U.S.-led force that has been conducting air strikes against Moammar Gadhafi's forces, officials said Sunday.
The North Atlantic Council — the alliance's top body — approved a plan to expand the previously agreed mission to enforce the U.N. arms embargo and no-fly zone by agreeing to protect civilians from attack.
"NATO Allies have decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya under the U.N. Security Council resolution," Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.
"NATO will implement all aspects of the U.N. resolution. Nothing more, nothing less," he said.
After eight days of strikes on Libyan targets, Washington is eager to quickly hand off responsibility for the air offensive to the alliance.
A diplomat who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the transfer of authority from the U.S.-led force may take several days. He said the rules of engagement for the NATO force would be very similar to those of the international air armada.
The U.N. authorized the operation after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power
The air strikes have already tipped the balance away from Gadhafi's regular military to the lightly armed rebels, although the two sides remain at stalemate in key cities.
NATO expects to start enforcing the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone on Sunday or Monday, as well as coordinating naval patrols in the Mediterranean to enforce the arms embargo.
A Canadian three-star general, Charles Bouchard, will be in charge of both operations. He will report to an American admiral, Samuel Locklear, commander of NATO's Allied Joint Force Command Naples.
Naples is one of NATO's two operational headquarters. The other, Brunssum in the Netherlands, is responsible for the war in Afghanistan.
NATO has significant experience in such operations. Its warplanes successfully enforced a no-fly zone over Bosnia in the early 1990s and bombed Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999 in an effort to end crackdowns on ethnic Albanian civilians.