By Daniel Alvarenga
LISBON (Reuters) - NATO will continue its mission in Libya as long as there is any threat to the country's population from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi that are still offering resistance, the head of the western alliance said on Thursday.
NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Lisbon that after the threat had gone, the alliance's role would be a supporting one.
"NATO and our partners will continue the mission as long as the threat remains, but not a minute longer," he said after meeting Portuguese Foreign Minister Paulo Portas.
"Some pockets of resistance still exist and these constitute a potential threat to the population, so we will continue until there is no threat," he told reporters later, following a meeting with Portuguese Defense Minister Pedro Aguiar Branco.
He reiterated that the end of the mission in Libya did not hinge on the capture of Gaddafi.
"Gaddafi is not the target of our operation. The end of the mission ... will be based on a broad political assessment of the situation. First to assess whether the National Transitional Council will be able to protect the population, and secondly there will be a military evaluation on the ground."
Rasmussen said the alliance currently had no troops on the ground in Libya.
"Gaddafi and the remains of his machine must realize that there is nothing to be gained from more fighting," he added.
Earlier on Thursday, the former Libyan leader vowed to defeat the National Transitional Council (NTC) that controls most of the country in a phone call aired by a Syrian television station.
Rasmussen also said NATO's mission in Libya had prevented a massacre and that it was now for the ruling NTC and the Libyan people to decide Libya's future and ensure a peaceful transition to democracy.
(Writing by Axel Bugge and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Jon Boyle)