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How NATO could find itself protecting Qaddafi loyalists in Libya

NATO's mandate in Libya is to protect civilians, and with rebels now promising to attack cities loyal to Qaddafi, the alliance could be called on to protect civilians there. It is one complication that has NATO pressing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

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With the clock ticking on the Libyan rebels’ Saturday deadline for forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi to surrender or face attack, NATO is anxiously seeking to head off a potentially bloody military onslaught.

Not only could battles for the loyalists’ remaining strongholds draw the Atlantic alliance deeper into Libya’s civil conflict, given NATO’s mandate to protect civilian life. But any fierce fighting at this point could make a future political transition all the more difficult – complicating the alliance’s quick exit from Libya.

“Getting a quiet end to this and preventing any kind of bloodbath is definitely a big priority for NATO, and for a couple of key reasons,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

“First, the ‘responsibility to protect’ is just as much NATO’s mandate when it’s about civilians who might be aligned with loyalist forces as the other way around, so NATO could see itself dragged into any last bloody fights,” he says.

“And second, NATO would very much like to see this wrapped up as quickly as possible with as little additional civil strife as possible,” he adds. “Not only does more fighting mean political stability is put off, but it also causes problems for NATO leaders who told their constituents the fall of Tripoli was the end of this campaign.”

Ultimatum to surrender

Concerns over NATO’s role in any Libyan endgame were heightened Tuesday when leaders of the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) issued their ultimatum to loyalists to surrender by Saturday.

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