Tripoli: NATO warplanes hammered Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s compound with their heaviest air strikes yet on Tuesday after the United States said he would “inevitably” be forced from power.
The shockwave from the strikes was so powerful that plaster fell from the ceilings in a hotel where foreign reporters were staying, about 2 km from Gadhafi’s compound.
A NATO official said the strikes hit a military facility that had been used to attack civilians. A Libyan government spokesman said three people had been killed and 150 wounded, and that the casualties were local residents.
“It is definitely, in terms of one target, the largest and most concentrated attack we have done to date,” said the NATO official in Brussels.
“This complex is where members of the Gadhafi regime, not only military, but hit squads, were based out of in the early days of the violent suppression of the popular uprising, and it has been active ever since,” the official said.
Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said the strikes had targeted a compound of the Popular Guards, a tribally based military detachment.
But he said the compound had been emptied of people and “useful material” in anticipation of an attack. “This is another night of bombing and killing by NATO,” Ibrahim said.
Led by France, Britain and the United States, NATO warplanes have been bombing Libya since the United Nations authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from Gadhafi’s forces in the country’s civil war.
Critics argue that NATO has overstepped its mandate and is trying directly to engineer Gadhafi’s fall. Rebels, however, have complained Western forces are not doing enough to break Gadhafi’s army.
“We have degraded his war machine and prevented a humanitarian catastrophe,” US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in Britain’s Times newspaper. “And we will continue to enforce the U.N. resolutions with our allies until they are completely complied with.”
U.N. Security Council 1973, passed on 17 March 2011, established a no-fly zone and called for a ceasefire, an end to attacks on civilians, respect for human rights and efforts to meet Libyans’ aspirations. Gadhafi denies his forces target civilians and describes the rebels as criminals and religious extremists.
US secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a London news conference on Monday: “We do believe that time is working against Gadhafi, that he cannot re-establish control over the country.”
She said the opposition had organised a legitimate and credible interim council that was committed to democracy.
“Their military forces are improving and when Gadhafi inevitably leaves, a new Libya stands ready to move forward,” she said. “We have a lot of confidence in what our joint efforts are producing.”
The United States bolstered the credentials of the rebel National Transitional Council as a potential government-in-waiting on Tuesday when a senior US envoy invited it to set up a representative office in Washington.
“A formal invitation for the council to establish a representative in Washington D.C. is a milestone in our relationship and I am pleased that they accepted our offer,” said US assistant secretary for the Near East Jeffrey Feltman, who was meeting rebel leaders in rebel-held Benghazi.
Unlike France, Italy and Qatar, the United States has not established formal diplomatic ties with the rebels.
Rebels trying to end Gadhafi’s 41-year rule control the east of the oil-producing country, but the conflict has been deadlocked for weeks.
French officials said on Monday that France and Britain would deploy attack helicopters, a step aimed at targeting Gadhafi’s forces more precisely. However, Britain’s Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey said on Tuesday Britain had taken no decision on whether to use them.
“What we want is to better tailor our ability to strike on the ground with ways that allow more accurate hits,” French foreign minister Alain Juppe said.
But the use of helicopters carries risks for NATO, as they would fly lower than warplanes and be more exposed to ground fire. The downing of helicopters could draw ground forces into rescue efforts.
Reporters, whose movements are tightly controlled by the Libyan authorities, were taken to visit Tripoli’s central hospital after the heavy night raids.
They were shown the corpses of three men with head injuries, their bodies laid out on gurneys.
A man who identified himself only as Hatim, who had deep gashes and abrasions on his arms and legs, said the blasts had caved in part of his residence near the military compound.
“We were in the house and then, wham, the ceiling came down, right on me,” he said.
A Reuters reporter in the city of Misrata, 200 km east of the Libyan capital, said the western district of Defniyah had come under light shelling from pro-Gadhafi forces.
Rebel fighters in the city, the biggest rebel stronghold in western Libya, have pushed back government forces to the outskirts after weeks of street-by-street fighting.