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NATO can’t confirm it hit Qaddafi; his death will bring quick end to Libya mission

NATO said it was unsure whether an alliance aircraft attack on Thursday had killed Muammar Qaddafi, but officials said his death would likely bring a quick end to NATO’s Libyan operation.

NATO planes struck military vehicles belonging to pro-Qaddafi forces near his last holdout of Sirte at about 0830 local time (0630 GMT) on Thursday, a statement from military spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie said.

“These armed vehicles were conducting military operations and presented a clear threat to civilians,” it said.

But the alliance could not confirm reports that the vehicles had been carrying Qaddafi, who was reported to have been in a convoy. NATO officials noted there were other reports that Gaddafi had been killed in an NTC attack, and said they were seeking formal confirmation from Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).

An NTC military official, Abdel Majid Mlegta, told Reuters Qaddafi had been captured and wounded in both legs at dawn as he tried to flee Sirte in a convoy that NATO warplanes attacked. A senior NTC military official later said Gaddafi had died of wounds suffered in his capture. The NTC also said it had overrun Sirte, the last bastion of Qaddafi’s long rule.

Qaddafi’s death and the capture of his last remaining stronghold would likely prompt an announcement within days of an end to NATO’s Libyan operation, alliance officials said.

“We will probably see movement in the next day or so,” said a NATO military official. “Having Qaddafi out of the way would obviously be a big factor.”

In a U.N.-mandated military operation to protect civilians, NATO has since March 31 been conducting air strikes, enforcing a no-fly zone and maintaining an arms embargo with naval patrols.

A decision to end the operation would be taken by alliance ambassadors based on the recommendation of its top operations commander Admiral James Stavridis, who was currently travelling back from the United States, a NATO official said. The decision would take into account the ability of the NTC to maintain security in Libya, he added.

On Wednesday NATO ambassadors put off a decision because of caution by countries such as Britain and France, which have been at the forefront of the intervention.

Francois Heisebourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said that with Sirte captured and Qaddafi gone there would be no justification for continuing the NATO mission.

“If the cause of the threat to the civilian population in the form of Qaddafi is out of the picture, or if his forces no longer control any part of Libyan territory, that would normally mean that operations should stop,” he said.

“It certainly would be very difficult to sustain them vis-à-vis the U.N. Security Council resolution ... in this case it would become impossible to justify.”

Heisebourg said the operation could be declared a success for the West -- particularly Britain and France, which had carried out the bulk of strike missions -- but that the operation could not have succeeded without strong U.S. support. The U.S. provided intelligence, logistical support and air-to-air refueling but did not take part in the bombing.

The downside, he said, was that ending the operation would throw the focus firmly back to NATO’s troubled mission in Afghanistan.

“Libya for the alliance was a rather welcome moment as it made everybody forget about Afghanistan for a few brief months,” said Heisebourg. “This is going to firmly bring the limelight back to the Afghan account and that is probably not good news, because Libya means success and Afghanistan means trouble.”