By Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday distanced itself from efforts to hunt down Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, saying neither U.S. assets nor NATO forces were targeting the fugitive strongman.
Comments by Pentagon and State Department officials highlighted Washington's sensitivity toward any perceived shift in NATO's military mission in Libya toward direct involvement in regime change.
NATO's mission, as authorized by the United Nations, is to protect Libyan civilians -- not take out Gaddafi, even as he becomes the focus of the apparent final chapter in the rebel overthrow of his regime.
"Neither the United States nor NATO is involved in this manhunt," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said: "I'm not speaking for any other national authorities -- whether any of our partner nations might be doing something. But NATO itself, and the U.S. as part of it, are not."
Britain's Defense Minister Liam Fox said earlier that NATO was aiding efforts by rebels to find Gaddafi, as they seek to stifle any counter-attack by his family or other loyalists.
"I can confirm that NATO is providing intelligence and reconnaissance assets to the NTC (National Transitional Council) to help them track down Colonel Gaddafi and other remnants of the regime," he told Sky News.
But the statements by U.S. officials appeared to contradict Fox's comment. Asked about that, a spokeswoman at the British embassy in Washington drew a distinction between what British national assets were doing and what NATO was doing "to protect the Libyan people while Gaddafi remains at large."
"U.K. national assets will provide whatever assistance and/or intelligence they can to the NTC to help bring this conflict to a conclusion," the spokeswoman said.
The hairsplitting underscored the sometimes fuzzy boundary that U.S. and NATO officials believe circumscribes their mission: they are authorized to eliminate Gaddafi loyalist military targets that are a threat to civilians under the United Nations' mandate, but not permitted to target the commander of those forces, Gaddafi, himself.
That distinction is even harder to grasp, given the long-stated political goal by the United States and its allies that Gaddafi be removed from power.
Lapan suggested that the NATO mission could end without Gaddafi's capture if the violence ebbs and loyalist forces stop fighting.
"If attacks on civilians stopped, regardless of any individual, you know, it's those military missions (halting attacks) that NATO is undertaking," he said.
Gaddafi, in a message broadcast on loyalist satellite TV channels on Thursday, called on his supporters to march on Tripoli and "purify" the capital of rebels, who he denounced as "rats, crusaders and unbelievers."
Still, Lapan questioned those who thought Gaddafi was still in control of all the country's remaining loyalist fighters from wherever he might be hiding, passing on real-time orders.
"Do you expect that every attack has been personally directed by him?" Lapan asked.
(Additional reporting by Warren Strobel; editing by Christopher Wilson)