BRUSSELS (AP) — A top NATO official said Monday that the alliance had no idea Moammar Gadhafi was in a convoy hit by airstrikes as it fled the besieged Libyan town of Sirte while opposition forces closed in.
"We saw a convoy and we had no idea that Gadhafi was on board. In fact, I was surprised that Gadhafi was in the Sirte area," the commander of NATO operations in Libya, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, said during a video conference from his headquarters in Naples, Italy.
Bouchard said NATO commanders ordered the airstrikes as they believed the large armed convoy would try to link up with other pockets of resistance in the west.
The conference was the first time Bouchard had explained the reasons for the strikes, which Gadhafi survived, only for him to be killed later Thursday with several other followers. The circumstances of his death remain unclear.
Bouchard said NATO air surveillance had detected about 175 vehicles assembling in Sirte early Thursday, preparing to transport remaining loyalists out of the besieged coastal town as forces of the new government mounted their final assault.
"The vehicles started to make their way out, and one of the outcomes of this was the concern (that forces) from Sirte would join with the remnants of forces from Bani Walid and move into another desert area," Bouchard said.
Sirte and Bani Walid, about 250 kilometers (150 miles) to the northwest, were the last two stronghold's of Gadhafi's supporters.
"We went on from there to first of all attempt up to break up the convoy, to break it into manageable chunks and to slow it down (and) that's what we did."
"We brought to bear our weapons systems on the convoy twice, and we achieved the aim of stopping the convoy," Bouchard said, adding that the presence of rockets and machine guns in some vehicles made them a legitimate target.
The airstrikes were among the 26,000 sorties and 9,600 strike missions flown by NATO warplanes in the past seven months, during which around 5,900 military targets were destroyed. These included Libya's air defenses and more than 1,000 tanks, vehicles and guns, as well as Gadhafi's command and control networks.
The daily airstrikes enabled the rebels' ragtag forces to advance and take Tripoli two months ago. On Sunday, Libya's interim rulers declared the country liberated, launching the oil-rich nation on what is meant to be a two-year transition to democracy.
The alliance on Friday announced preliminary plans to phase out its campaign at the end of this month. Air patrols over Libya would continue in the meantime to make sure there is no return to violence.
A spokeswoman said Monday that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was consulting with Libya's interim government and the United Nations about winding down the mission.
"As we wind down the operation ... we will monitor the situation and retain the capacity to respond to any threats to civilians as needed," spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said.
The alliance's governing body was expected to decide for definite on Wednesday to end all operations on Oct. 31, an official accredited to NATO said. He spoke on condition of anonymity in order to divulge confidential information.
Meanwhile, in London Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged Monday that "this was Libya's revolution," but said his country should be proud of the role it played.
Cameron told British lawmakers that U.K. jets flew more than 3,000 missions as part of the NATO operation.
Associated Press correspondent Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.
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