TRIPOLI (Reuters) - NATO warplanes hammered Muammar Gaddafi’s compound with their heaviest air strikes yet on Tuesday after the United States said the Libyan leader 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 (1.2 miles) from Gaddafi’s compound.
A NATO official said the strikes hit a military facility that had been used to launch attacks on civilians. Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said late on Tuesday that the death toll from the attacks was 19, against an early estimate of three.
Earlier the Libyan government said that 150 had been 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.
Ibrahim said the strikes had targeted a compound of the Popular Guards, an armed unit.
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 told reporters.
Libyan news agency Jana said targets hit by NATO included a Tripoli mosque called Nuri Bani, though this could not be independently verified.
A Libyan military source said NATO forces also struck civilian and military targets in the Tajoura area, east of the Libyan capital Tripoli, and another nearby location on Tuesday.
State television al-Jamahiriya said the attack resulted in “material losses and human casualties” but gave no specific details. It was not immediately possible to verify the report.
Libyan television also reported a NATO strike on the town of Zlitan, west of Misrata, but gave no details on casualties.
“ALL NECESSARY MEASURES”
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 Gaddafi forces in the country’s civil war.
Critics argue that NATO has overstepped its mandate and is trying directly to engineer Gaddafi’s fall. Rebels, however, have complained Western forces are not doing enough to break Gaddafi’s army.
“We have degraded his war machine and prevented a humanitarian catastrophe,” U.S. 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.”
Gaddafi denies his forces target civilians and describes the rebels as criminals and religious extremists.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a London news conference on Monday: “We do believe that time is working against Gaddafi, 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 Gaddafi 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 U.S. envoy invited it to set up a representative office in Washington.
Unlike France, Italy and Qatar, the United States has not established formal diplomatic ties with the rebels.
Rebels trying to end Gaddafi’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 Gaddafi’s forces more precisely.
Seeking to counter fears in Western capitals that NATO could be sucked into a long-drawn-out conflict, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the French parliament the mission in Libya “would not last longer than a few months”.
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, and any attempts to rescue the crews, could suck Western governments into the ground war which they had promised to avoid.
British Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey said Britain had not taking a decision on deploying helicopters. “It is an option which we are considering and at some point in the future we may get to the point of deciding to go down this route,” he said.
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 (130 miles) east of the Libyan capital, said the western district of Defniyah had come under light shelling from pro-Gaddafi forces, but this had stopped later in the day.
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.
Gaddafi’s grip on power appeared to have suffered a blow last week when Libyan rebels and officials in neighbouring Tunisia said that Shokri Ghanem, Libya’s most senior oil official, had fled the country and defected.
However, sources at Western oil firms said Ghanem was still working for the Libyan government, and was in fact on a secret mission to maintain ties with foreign energy firms so they could later return if international sanctions are lifted.
Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Mohammed Abbas in Misrata and Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Nicolas Vinocur in Paris, Adrian Croft in London, Tom Bergin in London, Sami Aboudi in Cairo and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Christian Lowe and Jan Harvey; Editing by Maria Golovnina