LONDON - Britain's defense secretary said Thursday that Libyan rebels hunting Muammar Qaddafi and battling the last pockets of resistance by forces loyal to him were getting some help from NATO, though a U.S. defense official denied the alliance was participating in the search for the dictator.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said NATO was playing an active role in efforts to locate Qaddafi, whose whereabouts are unknown. Rebels stormed his compound in the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Tuesday, but he was not there.
Hours later, however, U.S. Marine Col. David Lapan said the U.S. is conducting aerial surveillance of Libya in support of NATO's military mission to protect civilians from attack by government forces. But he said this does not amount to targeting Qaddafi. He said it is not NATO's mission to target or hunt down individuals.
The rebel leadership has offered a $2 million bounty on Qaddafi's head, but the autocrat has refused to surrender, fleeing to an unknown destination as his 42-year regime crumbles in the North African nation. Speaking to a local Libyan television channel Wednesday, apparently by phone, Qaddafi 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 Qaddafi 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. Qaddafi, 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."
The United States is the largest contributor to NATO, but the Obama administration has repeatedly said it will not place U.S. military personnel on the ground in Libya. The Pentagon said earlier this week that the Libyan rebel military advance into Tripoli had not changed that policy.
However, U.S. drone aircraft have been helping the Libyan rebels gather intelligence for months, and U.S. intelligence agencies including the CIA have been working with contacts they developed in Libya before the uprising began in the spring.
Rebels say Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, which is 250 miles 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 Qaddafi could be any other place."
The French magazine Paris-Match reported Thursday that the rebels nearly caught Qaddafi on Wednesday but he got away and is still somewhere in Tripoli. The report cited an unnamed "reliable source" as saying a cell of rebel and Arab intelligence services located a plain, modest house in central Tripoli where Qaddafi had spent at least one night.
The report said Libyan rebels then stormed the house, but Qaddafi had already left. It said there was some unidentified proof that Qaddafi had been there.
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-Qaddafi forces with training and logistics.
A Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said special forces from some NATO nations operating outside the alliance's command structure may now be engaged in the hunt for Qaddafi.
U.S. aircraft accounted for most of the more than 20,200 sorties flown by NATO aircraft in the five-month war in Libya. The largest proportion were flights by American aerial tankers refueling allied strike planes, as well as AWACS and other surveillance aircraft.
European warplanes mainly French and British have flown the vast majority of the airstrike sorties, but U.S. armed drones and some jets such as those tasked with radar-supressing Wild Weasel missions have also participated.
In Brussels, a NATO spokeswoman declined to comment Thursday, saying only that the alliance does not discuss intelligence matters. "NATO does not target specific individuals," spokeswoman 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."
That mission, according to a U.N. mandate, is to protect civilians in Libya from attacks by Qaddafi's forces.