Nato said its commanders were not aware that Muammar Gaddafi was in a convoy that Nato bombed as it fled Sirte, as Nato's governing body gathered to decide how to end its bombing campaign in Libya.

The success of Nato's seven-month military operation in Libya has helped reinvigorate the Cold War alliance and polished the reputation of France and Britain, the two countries that drove it forward.

Analysts attributed its success to the fact that Nato remained steadfast over the summer during a long and grinding stalemate against Gaddafi loyalists and avoided the temptation to send ground troops into Libya.

In a statement today, the alliance said an initial strike on Thursday morning was aimed at a convoy of approximately 75 armed vehicles leaving Sirte, the Libyan city defended by Gaddafi loyalists. One vehicle was destroyed, which resulted in the convoy's dispersal.

Another jet then engaged about 20 vehicles that were driving at great speed toward the south, destroying or damaging about 10 of them.

"We later learned from open sources and allied intelligence that Gaddafi was in the convoy and that the strike likely contributed to his capture," the statement said.

After Libya's former rebels killed Gaddafi, officials said they expected the aerial operation to end very soon. But the North Atlantic Council may also decide to keep air patrols flying for several more days until the security situation on the ground stabilises.

The final decision will depend on the recommendation of Admiral Jim Stavridis, the supreme allied commander, and the Military Committee, the highest military organ.

Nato's secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen says the end of the campaign "has now moved much closer". He also hailed the success of the mission, saying that it demonstrated that the alliance continues to play an "indispensable" role in confronting current and future security challenges.

Nato planes have flown about 26,000 sorties, including over 9,600 strike missions. They destroyed Libya's air defences and over 1,000 tanks, vehicles and guns, as well as Gaddafi's command and control networks.

The daily air strikes finally broke the stalemate that developed after Gaddafi's initial attempts failed to crush the rebellion that broke out in February. In August, the rebels began advancing on Tripoli, with the Nato planes providing close air support and destroying any attempts by the defenders to block them.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said today that "the operation has reached its end". But how to draw down the campaign will be decided "with our allies and also with input from the (interim government)".

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