NATO will take overall responsibility for carrying out the UN-mandated mission in Libya  [Reuters]

NATO is to assume full command of operations in Libya from the US-led force that has been conducting air attacks against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's leader.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, announced the agreement on Sunday following a meeting in Brussels.

"We have directed NATO's top operational commander to begin executing this operation with immediate effect," he said in a statement.

"Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat from the Gaddafi regime.

"NATO will implement all aspects of the UN resolution. Nothing more, nothing less," he said, referring to the UN Security Council resolution that authorised military action over Libya.

Paul Brennan, Al Jazeera's correspondent, reporting from Brussels said: "NATO was already involved in enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo.

"Now they are going to take overall command which means they will [also] take responsibility for protecting Libyan civilians on the ground. It's a big step forward."

Week of debate

The operations will be led by Canadian General Charles Bouchard, NATO said.

In a statement released in Naples after NATO took over enforcement of the no-fly zone, Bouchard said the alliance "will do everything it can to deny any use of air power and it will do so with care and precision to avoid harming the people of Libya".

Experts said that a full transition to NATO command would take about 48 hours.

The agreement, reached after just two hours of talks, ends a week of heated debate, much of it between NATO members France and Turkey, over the Libya mission's command structure.

After eight days of strikes on Libyan targets, Washington is eager to quickly hand responsibility for air strikes to the military alliance.

The air raids have already tipped the balance away from Gaddafi's regular military to the lightly armed rebels, although the two sides remain at a stalemate in key cities.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencie