A day after rebels reclaimed the airport in the contested western city of Misurata, explosions echoed across Tripoli early Thursday morning as NATO warplanes struck a large compound belonging to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and other areas of the capital, news reports said.
Libyan state television said the airstrike had hit Qaddafi's compound, Bab al-Azaziya, but did not describe which buildings in the sprawling area had been damaged, The Associated Press reported. State television also reported damage to the North Korean Embassy from the bombing, Reuters said.
The strikes came shortly after Colonel Qaddafi made his first public appearance in nearly two weeks on Wednesday night, speaking briefly on Libyan state television. Wearing dark sunglasses, he gestured to his audience in a Tripoli hotel and said, “We tell the world: those are the representatives of the Libyan tribes.”
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Yet even as Colonel Qaddafi sought to underscore his support among some of Libya's fractious tribes and quell rumors about his health, the rebels notched one of their most significant victories of the Libyan conflict by seizing the airport in Misurata, dealing a stiff military and public-relations blow to the Qaddafi government. The airport and its approaches were the last remaining pieces of terrain in the city to be controlled by Qaddafi soldiers.
With these soldiers pushed back, the western area of Misurata, a city that has been under siege for nearly two months, appeared by nightfall to be out of range of the most common of the Qaddafi forces' heavy weapons, including self-propelled artillery, Grad rockets and 120-millimeter mortars, which loyalists have used to fire cluster munitions.
Though potentially reversible, the capture of the airport appeared to be a break in the siege. With the loyalists suffering a string of defeats in recent days and the rebels gaining weapons and confidence, Colonel Qaddafi now appeared weaker than ever before, Misurata residents said. With their advance, the rebels had, at least for the moment, the potential to cut off government forces in the east from those in the west of Libya, threatening the logistics lines of Qaddafi forces.
The rebel commander at the airport added that the rebels, who now have physical control of all of Misurata, Libya's third-largest city, had given the citizens of Libya a psychological milestone that could endanger Colonel Qaddafi's hold on the capital.
“Any victory we make here will encourage the people of Tripoli,” he said, as he strutted through the airport's departure terminal, where the abandoned green uniforms of Qaddafi soldiers rested on several luggage carts. “They will say: 'Qaddafi is weak. Why can he not keep Misurata?'”
The rebels also appeared to make progress in their diplomatic efforts as well on Thursday. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Libyan rebels' national council, met with the British foreign secretary, William J. Hague, and secured a physical home for the fledgling government’s diplomatic efforts in Britain. “We've announced today that the Libyan Interim National Transitional Council will be able to open an office in London,” Mr. Hague announced in a post on Twitter late Thursday morning. However unlike France and Italy, Britain has not recognized the national council as the legitimate government in Libya.
In Tripoli, on Wednesday, the rebels' seizure of the airport prompted a show of defiance from one government spokesman that appeared to mask a growing sense of unease. “This is nonsense: we control the airport and we also control the seaport,” said Moussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman.
Another official gave a more gloomy assessment, effectively acknowledging that morale among Qaddafi loyalists was faltering because of the rebels' success at Misurata, Western aid to the rebels and the intensifying tempo of NATO airstrikes against targets in Tripoli this week.
“Of course it worries me, that they are coming closer to Tripoli,” the official said. “They have religious people, jihadists, among them, and you don't know what they will do if they enter Tripoli.”
But in Misurata, after rebel fire silenced what seemed to be the last pockets of resistance at the airport, celebrations broke out by evening. Ambulances roamed the city, sirens wailing, as convoys of machine-gun trucks drove past with gunmen cheering and occasionally firing in the air. “God is great!” they chanted.
In western Misurata, where many families had been hiding, residents emerged by the hundreds, then thousands. Roads once lightly traveled were clogged by traffic jams. “Qaddafi down!” people shouted. “Qaddafi is finished!”
The outpouring of emotion was understandable for a city that had endured fierce house-to-house fighting and absorbed week after week of shelling and rocket fire. It also risked being premature. At the city's two eastern fronts, Qaddafi soldiers were believed to have Grad rockets and artillery in range of several neighborhoods and the city’s seaport, its sole route for medical evacuations and resupply.
The city's roughly 500,000 residents remain isolated and in need of food and medical aid.
The commander at the airport, who asked that his name be withheld to prevent retaliation against family members elsewhere in Libya, also said that the rebels were worried that the Qaddafi military had regrouped and gathered reinforcements about 25 miles away, and might counterattack at any time.
Late last month, Misurata's rebels forced the Qaddafi military from the city’s center in a bloody building-by-building fight. Since then, the lines had largely been static. The Qaddafi forces had taken up defensive positions at various points around the city, and shelled it at will.
On Sunday, after a stepped-up campaign of airstrikes by NATO warplanes, which have been bombing military targets under a United Nations Security Council mandate to protect civilians, the Qaddafi lines began to break anew.
The rebels, riding machine-gun trucks and fighting on foot, pushed westward several miles by Monday, reaching the outskirts of Ad Dafniyah.
On Tuesday the rebels then tried a plan modeled in part on their successes in April on Tripoli Street, one of Misurata's main boulevards.
There, by gradually building barricades of sand and blocking roadways with shipping containers and dump trucks, they cut off their enemies' routes of reinforcement and resupply. Then, building by building, they tried the same tactic, writ small: cutting off structures and storming the Qaddafi soldiers trapped inside.
Last weekend, a rebel commander said they would try to block and sever a road on the far side of the airport, trapping and demoralizing loyalist forces again. An attempt on Tuesday did not quite succeed.
On Wednesday, as the rebels attacked again, the will of the Qaddafi forces appeared to break. After intense gun and mortar fire in the late morning, the loyalists bolted, in many places leaving behind vehicles and uniforms.
A NATO spokesman said on Wednesday that the alliance had conducted more than 120 sorties on Monday and Tuesday, bringing the total number of strike sorties since the air war began in March to 2,414.
A journalist accompanying rebels who were passing through the fence on the airport's southern perimeter saw abandoned Libyan Army tanks and a deserted bazaar formerly occupied by Qaddafi troops.
The rebels soon gathered several dead Qaddafi soldiers and searched the hangars, from which they seized weapons. Rebels in pickup trucks packed with ammunition left behind by the Qaddafi military soon were headed back to bases in the city.
Rebels also looted the terminals' few office buildings, though after the airport had served as a Qaddafi military position for almost two months, there seemed to be little to steal. Some rebels departed with pickup trucks stacked with little more than dingy office chairs.
A short while later, as the commander drove back toward the city's center, he paused at a highway overpass on the city's southern side. The overpass — known simply as “the bridge” — had for weeks marked the limit of the rebels' advance. With Qaddafi snipers, machine gunners and mortar crews watching over it, no rebel dared to pass under it, much less drive on it.
The commander stopped the truck. He pointed in one direction — toward Surt, Colonel Qaddafi's tribal home. Then in the other, toward Tripoli. “For two months we could not be here, and today it is fine,” he said. “I think now Qaddafi cannot come to Misurata again. He took his lesson here.”
Then he amended his statement. “Maybe he will still try to come again,” he said. “He does not care about Libyans. Maybe he will send more Libyans here to die.”
John F. Burns contributed reporting from Tripoli, Libya.