Tripoli, Libya – Waves of NATO fighter planes hit the Libyan capital Tuesday with one of the largest bombardments of the city since the Western-led alliance began airstrikes almost three months ago.
It was a brazen daylight attack that went on for hours and highlighted how thoroughly the Western alliance controls the skies after wiping out much of Libya's antiaircraft capabilities in the earliest days of the battle.
Plumes of thick black smoke rose in the afternoon sky over Moammar Kadafi's fortified Bab Aziza compound, which was heavily damaged in the barrage.
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Explosions were heard late into the afternoon, hours after the initial attacks began in the morning.
The assault — Libyan officials said at least 60 rockets struck the city, at least 31 people were killed and dozens were injured — also came after alliance officials had been warning of a planned escalation of their air campaign amid concern in Western nations that the conflict may drag on without an end in sight. The city had been hit hard in recent days, but Tuesday's attack was by far the fiercest.
It remained unknown whether the stepped-up raids would help persuade Kadafi to step down, as the rebels and their Western allies have demanded. His government has suffered massive defections, but some core support is still evident among the population.
A defiant Kadafi on Tuesday called on all Libyans to join him in the battle against what he called an “aggressive, barbaric [and] savage” campaign.
“We shall not submit, we shall not surrender,” Kadafi declared in a radio address played through the night on state television, accompanied by images of Libyans training for battle. “We shall stay here till the end, dead, alive, victorious; it doesn't matter.”
Pro-Kadafi rallies broke out on the streets of the city in the early evening, with many supporters hoisting posters of the leader, waving green flags and firing Kalashnikov rifles into the sky.
Libyan government officials renewed calls for a cease-fire and negotiations to end the fighting, but only if there were no preconditions, such as Kadafi stepping down from power.
The country has been engulfed in conflict since mid-February, when antigovernment protests erupted in several cities. Rebels based in Benghazi now control much of the eastern swath of the North African nation, while Kadafi remains in command in Tripoli and much of the west.
A North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led alliance began bombing government targets in March under the mandate of a United Nations resolution to protect civilians from Kadafi's government. NATO is also enforcing a no-fly zone and patrolling the Mediterranean as part of an arms embargo against Libya.
During the last week, NATO has been hitting Tripoli on almost a daily basis in an apparent effort to increase pressure on Kadafi to resign after more than 40 years in power. After a lull late Tuesday, a new round of nighttime explosions hit Tripoli early Wednesday.
The blitz Tuesday had begun about 11 a.m., shaking the ground and rattling windows over a broad swath of the city of 1.7 million people.
Throughout the day, the sound of aircraft was followed by thunderous blasts. Occasional bursts of antiaircraft fire could also be heard.
A NATO official said the targets hit were “command-and-control” centers. NATO commanders say Kadafi's command-and-control system is largely nonfunctioning after months of bombing.
One government official said several military barracks were struck. Commanders have moved concentrations of troops away from some military housing. State television reported that some residential complexes were damaged. The dead included soldiers and guards at government facilities, the spokesman said.
Many of the strikes zeroed in on Kadafi's sprawling Bab Azizia compound, which includes military, residential and government facilities.
“I do not feel the need to convince anyone that this is madness,” Musa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, said at a news conference Tuesday night. “You can feel the madness, you hear and you see it every day.”
A group of journalists taken to the compound, where a sign at the entrance reads, “Welcome on the soil of the steadfast resistance,” saw at least six buildings destroyed. Smoke drifted from the debris. An acrid smell hung in the air. Several of the buildings had been hit in previous strikes, but were bombed again Tuesday.
Littering the streets of the huge compound were shards of metal, chunks of concrete, twisted strands of rebar and assorted other debris, all blasted off buildings and walls. Visitors had to climb over hillocks of rubble to gaze inside what were once administrative, ceremonial and office buildings, the core of Kadafi's capital.
Inside the compound, angry workers shouted at journalists and vowed revenge. One official, who called himself Ali and wore a scarf across his face, said as many as a dozen people may be buried below the rubble of one building, an administrative center where Kadafi often met visiting dignitaries.
Workers showed journalists the body of one apparent victim, a middle-aged man whose name was given as Musbah Hassan Nasr. His corpse was wrapped in a blanket and covered in fine dust.
“Who will take revenge for the death of this martyr!” shouted Ali, the man who guided journalists through the devastated compound. “This is a man with children. Who will take care of his family?”
The body was put on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance.
NATO planes buzzed overhead as Ali berated the journalists.
“We could all be hit again! We will never forsake our leader! he shouted, referring to Kadafi. “We will never abandon him!”
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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