Conflicting reports from rebel forces placed Gaddafi in various locations throughout his tribal heartland, a triangle between his coastal home town, Sirte; the oasis town of Bani Walid to the west, where Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam is believed to be hiding; and the city of Sabha, on the edge of the Sahara in the south.
NATO aircraft continued flying strike missions over coastal areas, but officials said that a decreasing number of targets fall within the alliance’s authorized mission of protecting civilians from government forces. That mission has been broadly interpreted to include any massed group of government troops and command-and-control facilities.
The current NATO mandate runs out on Sept. 27; its renewal would require a political decision by alliance members. Military mission commanders could also recommend an end to the bombing before then.
“The actual operational plan says that the end state is whenever we decide we’ve achieved what we set out to do,” said a NATO official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. In Sirte and Bani Walid, Gaddafi “still has organized military forces capable of inflicting damages on civilians. As long as air power is still capable of dealing with that threat, we still have a mission. We’re still destroying stuff every day.”
Although U.S. “national technical means” — satellites and high-flying reconnaissance aircraft — observed the convoy entering Niger, the area is nearly 1,000 miles south of where NATO strike aircraft are operating, the official said. Hitting such targets “would be a completely different operation. . . . We would have to refuel over Libyan territory.”
In addition, he said, the alliance has “no independent means to verify” who is traveling in closed vehicles. “We have no idea where [Gaddafi] is,” the official said. “We really haven’t had a good sense for a while.”
NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie, in Naples, said it is not within the alliance’s mission “to track and target thousands of fleeing former regime leaders, mercenaries, military commanders and internally displaced people.”
Estimates of the number of vehicles in the convoy to Niger varied from 50 to more than 200. An official for the rebels’ governing Transitional National Council said the vehicles were armed and carried more than 250 people. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk frankly, said the rebels are worried about security along Libya’s thousands of miles of border because they have no ability to lock it down.