LONDON — NATO intelligence and reconnaissance assets are being used in the hunt to track down Moammar Gadhafi, the elusive Libyan dictator.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said NATO was playing an active role in efforts to locate Gadhafi — whose whereabouts are unknown. Rebels stormed his compound Tuesday, but he was not there.
The rebel leadership has offered a $2 million bounty on Gadhafi'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, Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi — 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. Gadhafi, 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 there was no immediate word from Washington on whether U.S. military resources were being directly used in hunt for Gadhafi. U.S. drone aircraft have been helping the Libyan rebels with intelligence-gathering for months, however, and the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have been gathering information from contacts they had developed in Libya before the uprising against Gadhafi's regime.
Rebels say Gadhafi'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 Gadhafi could be "in Sirte or any other place."
The French magazine Paris-Match reported Thursday that the rebels nearly caught Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi had spent at least one night.
The report says Libyan rebels then stormed the house, but Gadhafi had already left. It says there was some unidentified proof that Gadhafi 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-Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi.
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," 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."
Lekic reported from Brussels. Connie Cass also contributed from Washington.