Gaddafi Survives a NATO Air Strike, as Fighting Intensifies

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Louafi Larbi / Reuters

Damage which the Libyan government said was caused by a coalition air strike is seen at the house of Saif Al-Arab Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in Tripoli, April 30, 2011.

Six weeks after NATO bombs began pounding Libya, Muammar Gaddafi's youngest son, Seif al-Arab, 29, and three of the Libyan leader's grandchildren were killed in an air strike near Gaddafi's house late Saturday, government officials said. The attack narrowly missed Gaddafi himself, according to officials who accused NATO of breaking international law by trying to assassinate the leader. But while residents reported hearing the unmistakable sounds of bombs exploding on the capital, few other details emerging from the war this weekend were certain — including even whether Gaddafi's son, the least famous of his eight children, was really dead.

So it goes in Libya's economic and political powerhouse of Tripoli, as the country leans toward a drawn-out civil war instead of an insurrection aimed at the rapid overthrow of Gaddafi's 42-year iron rule — and as the fight threatens finally to engulf the capital too. On Sunday the Italian embassy in Tripoli was vandalized, while the British embassy was burned to a shell by attackers, according to foreign office officials in London; the foreign secretary William Hague expelled the Libyan ambassador to Britain.

With few truly verifiable details from the warfront, both government officials in Tripoli and rebels in eastern Libya ratcheted up their accusations about the other side's attacks. Rebel fighters in Benghazi fired rockets and fireworks in celebration late Saturday night after the news broke that NATO had struck near Gaddafi's compound, while government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli, "What we have now is the law of the jungle. How is this helping in the protection of civilians?"

That question is becoming increasingly urgent as NATO members confront far greater complications in forcing Gaddafi from power than most expected when the operation began in March. The U.N. Security Council voted on March 17 to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, with one stated goal: to prevent a massacre of civilians by Gaddafi forces, who at the time were massing outside the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The NATO fighter jets succeeded in doing that, blasting much of Gaddafi's heavy armor to shreds and devastating his anti-aircraft missile stocks. Yet hundreds of NATO sorties have done little to stop the civil war, let alone move the conflict to a political resolution.

On the contrary, both Gaddafi loyalists and rebel units have intensified their battle and vowed to fight on, adding to their numbers with mercenaries on Gaddafi's side and fresh-trained recruits on the rebel side. U.S. officials last week estimated that about 30,000 people have died since the revolt erupted in Benghazi in mid-February.

On Sunday, Gaddafi forces again pounded the rebel-held city of Misrata, east of Tripoli. Some rebels said they fear that the Libyan leader might seek to exact revenge for his son's death by intensifying his assault on the besieged city, where rebels have fought a two-month battle to retain control. A Misrata resident told CNN on Sunday that there had been "very heavy shelling" since the news of Seif al-Arab's death: "I have been here during all the days of the conflict. Last night was the worst," he said. Gaddafi forces fired shells in the direction of Misrata's port, the city's lifeline for food, weapons and medical help; the rebels in Misrata, the third-biggest city in Libya, are encircled by foes.

NATO officials defused three mines on Friday in the sea outside Misrata's port, which Gaddafi's forces had carried there on inflatable boats. Italy's Navy Vice Admiral Rinaldo Veri, who heads NATO's maritime operation in Libya, told reporters that the mines were "clearly designed to disrupt the lawful flow of humanitarian aid to the innocent civilian people of Libya."

Aside from the mounting war casualties, U.N. officials warned last week that Libya could face severe food shortages within two months unless the conflict ends, since stocks have steadily dwindled since February, while many farmers have fled their homes, and roads have become too perilous for trucks to bring fresh supplies to the markets.

The news on Saturday that a NATO strike had killed Gaddafi's son is sure to bolster Gaddafi's claim that NATO's true aim is not to protect civilians but to assassinate him — certainly outside the U.N. mandate's terms. Moussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman, told reporters in Tripoli late Saturday night that the bombing was "a direct operation to assassinate the leader of this country. This is not the method by international law."

British Prime Minister David Cameron rejected that claim on Sunday, telling the BBC that the bombing of Gaddafi's compound was "about preventing a loss of civilian life by targeting Gaddafi's war-making machine. That is obviously tanks and guns and rocket launchers, but also command and control as well." Western leaders have repeatedly said that Gaddafi's compound in the Bab Al-Azizia neighborhood in western Tripoli is a legitimate military target, since it contains a crucial command center.

In fact, there was no proof on Sunday that Gaddafi's son had in fact been killed. That is partly because Seif al-Arab has little role in Libya's political leadership or military campaign. Gaddafi's other sons Seif al-Islam, Motassem, Khamiz, Saadi and Mohammed are all lynchpins of Gaddafi's regime, each with crucial military and economic portfolios; his sole daughter Aisha last week granted an interview to the New York Times. By contrast, few outside Gaddafi's close circle might notice whether Seif al-Arab, who was educated in Germany, had died. "The fact that Seif al-Arab (and not other sons...) was reported dead does raise suspicions as to the veracity of the report," said the private intelligence company Stratfor on Sunday. NATO officials denied that they were targeting individuals.

Severely constrained in their movements, foreign journalists in Tripoli were escorted late Saturday night to the attack site. Traipsing through a badly damaged house in the dark, reporters said they saw signs that people had been eating and watching television there when the attack happened. Officials said that Seif al-Arab had been chatting with his father and family members when a NATO bomb hit the site. Grainy television footage showed extensive damage to one building, and an unexploded bomb in another. "We do not know if this was Seif al-Arab's home," said the correspondent in Tripoli for Britain's Sky News on Sunday. "We also cannot confirm that Gaddafi was there with his family."

The bombs fell hours after Gaddafi had again appeared to offer a ceasefire deal, under terms that rebels have for weeks rejected, since they do not include Gaddafi's ouster or exile. "Come, France, the U.K. and America, come and we will negotiate with you," Gaddafi said in an 80-minute speech on state-run television. "Why are you attacking us?" he raged. "What madness is this?"