By David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO nations are expected to decide on Friday to phase out the alliance's Libyan air and sea mission following the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the fall of his last strongholds, alliance officials and diplomats said.
NATO has been conducting air strikes, enforcing a no-fly zone and maintaining an arms embargo with naval patrols since March 31, in a U.N.-mandated operation to protect civilians.
A decision to gradually wind down the mission was expected to be taken at a meeting of ambassadors of the 28 NATO nations in Brussels that started at 1430 GMT, based on recommendations from NATO military commanders, alliance officials and diplomats said.
NATO'S top operations commander, Admiral James Stavridis, said he would recommend to the meeting that the mission be concluded.
"I will be recommending conclusion of this mission to the North Atlantic Council of NATO," he said in a posting on Facebook. (http://www.facebook.com/#!/james.stavridis)
"A good day for NATO. A great day for the people of Libya," he wrote.
A NATO diplomat said the ambassadors were expected to agree to end the operation, "but they will probably decide to do that over the next two weeks or so."
A NATO official said that at least some air operations would be maintained for the time being.
"Certainly surveillance will continue as we need to continue to monitor the situation," the official said.
NATO officials said the decision would take into account the ability of Libya's interim authorities to maintain security. On Wednesday, NATO ambassadors put off a decision because of caution by countries such as Britain and France, which have been at the forefront of the military intervention.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday that the death of Gaddafi a day earlier meant NATO's action had reached its conclusion.
"Clearly the operation is coming to its end," he told reporters.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe earlier told Europe 1 radio that NATO's military intervention was now over, but added that France would assist the interim authorities in the transition to a democratic government.
British Foreign Minister William Hague said on Thursday Gaddafi's death brought the end of the operation "much closer," but added: "I think we will want to be sure there are not other pockets of pro-Gaddafi forces still able to threaten the civilian population."
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday that NATO's mission would end "soon" and a senior Canadian official said Canada's participation would end within two weeks.
A NATO official said military operations were routinely "phased out rather than just ended in one fell swoop."
"You make sure you wrap up the operation in a careful, methodical way that ensures the safety of the people is guaranteed. So we do anticipate that the recommendation will be more for a phasing out rather than a complete termination of the operation," he said.
Analysts said that with Gaddafi gone there was no justification for continuing the mission, which has lasted seven months and involved more than 26,000 air sorties and round-the-clock naval patrols.
"If the cause of the threat to the civilian population in the form of Gaddafi is out of the picture, or if his forces no longer control any part of Libyan territory, that would normally mean that operations should stop," said Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
"It certainly would be very difficult to sustain them vis-à-vis the U.N. Security Council resolution... in this case it would become impossible to justify."
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry in Paris; editing by Rex Merrifield)