NATO insisted Thursday that it was not targetting Muammar Gaddafi or coordinating with Libyan rebels, after the British defence secretary said the alliance was helping hunt down the elusive colonel.
"No specific individual is a target as an individual, whether it's Gaddafi or anybody else," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told AFP, adding that the alliance is applying its UN mandate to protect the Libyan population from attacks.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox had said earlier that NATO was playing an active role in efforts to locate Gaddafi — who fled from his Tripoli compound before it was stormed by opposition forces on Tuesday.
The rebel leadership has offered a $2 million bounty on Gaddafi's head, but the autocrat has refused to surrender as his 42-year regime crumbles in the North African nation, fleeing to an unknown destination.
Speaking to a local television channel Wednesday, apparently by phone, Gaddafi vowed from hiding to fight on "until victory or martyrdom."
Fox declined to confirm Thursday whether troops from Britain's elite Special Air Service or Special Boat Service were involved in attempts to locate Gaddafi — but acknowledged that NATO has a key role.
"We never comment about special forces, not least because if we were to use them under those circumstances it would compromise their security," Fox told BBC Radio 4.
European officials have confirmed that small numbers of British, French and other special forces have been working inside Libya in recent months.
"It is fair to say, however, that NATO is providing intelligence and reconnaissance assets to help in the hunt for Col. Gaddafi, and indeed the remnants of the regime," Fox said. "Last night, NATO was more active than we have been in recent days in terms of air activity against the resisting elements."
Rebels say Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, which is 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean Sea, is now a key target.
Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the opposition government, said Wednesday during talks in Paris that Gaddafi could be "in Sirte or any other place."
Britain previously provided a small number of military advisers — thought to be around 12 — to help organize Libya's rebel forces. France and Italy also sent similar troops to assist the anti-Gaddafi forces with training and logistics.
A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that special forces from some NATO nations — operating outside the alliance's command structure — may now be engaged in the hunt for Gaddafi.
In Brussels, a NATO spokeswoman delined to comment Thursday, saying only that the alliance does not discuss intelligence matters. "NATO does not target specific individuals," Oana Lungescu said.
Asked about the concentration of airstrikes around Tripoli overnight, she said the situation in Libya remains dynamic and NATO continues to monitor it closely.
"There are still threats and attacks across the country," she said. "We continue to strike whenever and wherever necessary to complete our mission."