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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO agreed on Wednesday to a three-month extension of its air-and-sea campaign in Libya as the country's new rulers try to dislodge well-armed Gaddafi loyalists holding out in several towns.
The agreement to extend the United Nations-mandated mission, which NATO took over on March 31, came at a meeting of ambassadors of the 28 NATO states in Brussels, a NATO diplomat said.
The current operations mandate was due to expire on September 27, and it was the second 90-day extension to the mission to protect civilians that has involved a campaign of air strikes and a naval mission to enforce a U.N. arms embargo against ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi's government.
"We are all pretty clear we are in the final stages of the old regime's ability to threaten civilians," another NATO diplomat said.
"But for some time now everyone has been united behind the idea that we need to keep the mission going as long as civilians are under threat and we still see civilians are under threat from actions on the ground."
Eight of the 28 NATO nations have taken part in air strikes since the mission began and have flown 23,350 sorties, including 8,751 strike sorties against targets such as command centres, armoured vehicles and missile sites.
Fourteen ships under NATO command are patrolling the central Mediterranean Sea to enforce a U.N. arms embargo.
NATO has so far suffered no casualties in the mission.
A revised U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya last week left the arms embargo in place, but allows Libya's interim government and the United Nations to import light weapons to maintain security.
It did not call for an end to the no-fly zone NATO has been enforcing, but diplomats say Libyan civil airliners will be allowed to fly provided they notify monitors of flight plans.
The resolution also establishes a U.N. mission in Libya, which diplomats say will consist of up to 200 people in an initial three-month phase to help the government with a post-conflict transition. Their tasks are expected to include police training and electoral assistance, U.N. officials say.
But the resolution does not call for deployment of peacekeepers or police as part of the new U.N. Support Mission.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance will continue its U.N.-mandated operation to protect civilians as long as there is a threat to the population but does not envisage a major post-conflict role.
Gaddafi, who is on the run, taunted the Western alliance in a speech broadcast by a Syrian-based television station on Tuesday, saying: "The bombs of NATO planes will not last."
Libya's new rulers are trying to dislodge well-armed Gaddafi loyalists from several towns and have yet to start a countdown toward writing a constitution and holding elections.
Gaddafi's opponents said on Wednesday they had captured most of one of his last strongholds in a boost to an administration struggling to assert full control over the fractured country.
Sabha -- deep in the Sahara desert -- had been holding out along with Bani Walid and Gaddafi's hometown Sirte since the fall of the capital Tripoli a month ago.
Libya's de facto rulers won expressions of support from Washington, the African Union and South Africa on Tuesday and its new flag flew for the first time at the United Nations.
But the National Transitional Council, still based in the eastern city of Benghazi, has faced questions about whether it can unify a country divided on tribal and local lines.