LONDON NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday he would not guess how long the alliance's military mission would last in Libya, but there could be no solely military solution.
Speaking after an international coalition pledged to continue military action against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and agreed to set up a contact group to coordinate political efforts, Rasmussen urged all parties to seek a political solution as soon as possible.
"I am not going to guess," he told Reuters when asked how long the NATO mission could last and whether it could become a financial burden for alliance states on top of their long commitment in Afghanistan.
"But I do hope that we'll see a political solution to the problems in Libya as soon as possible. Clearly there's no military solution, solely, to the problems in Libya," he said.
NATO agreed on Sunday to take over all operations in Libya from a coalition led by the United States, France and Britain, putting the 28-nation alliance in charge of air strikes that have targeted Muammar Gaddafi's military infrastructure, as well as a U.N.-mandated no-fly zone and an arms embargo.
NATO officials say alliance planning foresees a 90-day operation, but the timetable would depend on the United Nations.
"We are there to protect civilians against attack, but in order to find a long-term sustainable solution to the conflict in Libya, we need a political process and I would ask all parties involved to seek such political solutions sooner rather than later," Rasmussen said.
NATO forces will reach initial capacity to take over military operations in Libya on Wednesday and should be fully operational on Thursday, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
NATO SAYS HANDOVER ON TRACK
The commander of the NATO operation, Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, denied reports of a delay after U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday NATO would take over on Wednesday.
"NATO will soon take command of all operations," Bouchard said in a statement. "NATO allies are transferring assets as we speak. We are on track."
Rasmussen avoided a direct response when asked if NATO's mission would involve the same level of bombing as seen under the coalition, which has prompted some criticism, notably from Russia.
"What you will see is that we take all necessary measures to protect civilians just as requested in the U.N. Security Council resolution," he said.
Asked about comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said on Monday that Western air strikes amounted to intervention in a civil war and were not backed by the U.N. resolution authorizing no-fly zones, Rasmussen said:
"We will conduct our operations in strict conformity with the U.N. Security Council resolution. I would also remind you that the U.N. resolution authorizes to take all necessary measures to protect civilians, and that's what we will focus on -- the protection of civilians."
He said the U.N. resolution applied both to Gaddafi's forces and the rebels. "It applies across the board and we are there to protect civilians against any attack," he said.
"Having said that, I also have to say that clearly it is the Gaddafi regime that has attacked its own people systematically, which the U.N. Security Council has stated may amount to a crime against humanity, and this is basically the reason why the international community decided to take action."
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; editing by Mark Heinrich)