NATO Bombs Libyan Capital in Heaviest Strikes Yet

In the heaviest attack yet on the capital since the start of the two-month-old NATO bombing campaign, alliance aircraft struck at least 15 targets in central Tripoli early Tuesday, with most of the airstrikes concentrated on an area around Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s command compound.

The strikes, within a 30-minute period around 1 a.m., caused thunderous explosions and fireballs that leapt high into the night sky, causing people in neighborhoods a mile or more away to cry out in alarm.

Just as one strike ended, the sound of jet engines from low-flying aircraft in the stormy skies above the capital signaled the imminence of another. Huge plumes of black smoke rose and converged over the darkened cityscape.

“We thought it was the day of judgment,” one enraged Libyan said.

The intensity of the attacks, and their focus on the area of the Bab al-Aziziya command compound in central Tripoli, appeared to reflect a NATO decision to step up the tempo of the air war over the Libyan capital, perhaps with a view to breaking the stalemate that has threatened to settle over the three-month-old Libyan conflict.

As NATO intensified its airstrikes, the American State Department’s highest-ranking Middle East official, Jeffrey D. Feltman, was in Benghazi on Tuesday on a visit aimed at providing fresh impetus to the rebel cause. Speaking at a news conference, Mr. Feltman said that the Obama administration had invited the Libyan opposition to open an office in Washington, but stopped short of offering the formal recognition the rebels have been seeking.

“This step marks an important milestone in our relationship with the Transitional Council,” Mr. Feltman said, referring to the rebel governing body, who he said had accepted the American invitation.

Several countries, including France and Gambia, have recognized the rebel council, but the United States and Britain have not, instead sending diplomatic envoys.

In answering a question about what the rebels would have to do to earn formal recognition, Mr. Feltman cited concerns about “historic, legal” precedents, but said the questions about recognition “frankly miss the point.”

“The point is Qaddafi and Tripoli are increasingly isolated diplomatically,” he said. He did not announce any funding for movement, which has sought billions of dollars in aid and weapons. “We’re looking at what else we can do,” Mr. Feltman said. “I certainly got some strong messages yesterday from council members.”

On Monday, Mr. Feltman toured the rebel headquarters, a visit that coincided with an announcement by France’s defense minister, Gérard Longuet, that Britain and France would add attack helicopters to the NATO force as soon as possible. The move appeared to go at least some way toward meeting rebel appeals for stronger attacks on Qaddafi loyalist fighters. British officials, however, said on Tuesday that London had not made a final decision on the deployment of attack helicopters, news agencies reported.

As the rebels pushed for helicopter attacks, Tuesday’s airstrikes shook the center of the capital near Colonel Qaddafi’s compound. Libyan officials have accused NATO of repeatedly trying to assassinate Colonel Qaddafi with airstrikes on and near the compound, and Colonel Qaddafi himself has mocked the attacks, saying NATO cannot reach him as he “lives in the hearts of millions.”

In a familiar pattern, the accounts of the latest attacks given by NATO and the Qaddafi government varied widely. A government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said the strikes had hit a compound housing units of an auxiliary army force known as the Popular Guard. He said military commanders had largely cleared the compound in anticipation that it would be hit, and that casualties — which he gave as 3 dead and 150 wounded — were civilians from a nearby neighborhood.

NATO’S account, issued from the alliance’s southern European headquarters in Naples, Italy, said the target was a government vehicle storage facility adjacent to the Qaddafi compound. It said the facility had been used by the Qaddafi forces since the revolt against the government began in February, “and has remained so ever since, resupplying the regime forces that have been conducting attacks against innocent civilians.”

Reporters taken to the Tripoli Central Hospital were shown three dirt-strewn male bodies in civilian clothes with gaping shrapnel wounds to their heads, and half a dozen other men being treated for what appeared to be light wounds. Mr. Ibrahim said that the other wounded had been treated and released before reporters arrived, or had been treated at another hospital.

It was one of the few instances in recent weeks when reporters who have been told of civilian casualties from a NATO attack have seen any casualties, a pattern that has led to persistent uncertainties about official accounts. Most NATO attacks are launched late at night, and many of the buildings struck appeared to have been empty.

NATO has called the targets military, and often designates them as “command-and-control” centers; Qaddafi government spokesmen say the bombs and missiles have hit civilian structures.

Despite more than 2,500 NATO airstrikes, and an increasing focus in the past two weeks on targets in Tripoli, there have been few signs of an imminent collapse of the Qaddafi government, and rebel forces in the east, despite recent gains around the city of Misurata, have shown no sign of a broader breakthrough to the west.

Low-flying helicopters, including Britain’s fleet of American-built Apaches and France’s Tigre gunships, would give allied air commanders more flexibility to strike at government targets than the fast combat jets used until now.

[Source: By John Burns, The New York Times, Tripoli, 24May11]

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