NATO airstrikes pummel Tripoli
TRIPOLI — NATO warplanes repeatedly hit the Libyan capital early today in what appeared to be the heaviest night of bombing of the city since the start of the air campaign against Moammar Khadafy’s forces.
More than 20 NATO airstrikes in less than half an hour set off thunderous booms that rattled windows around the city.
Heavy plumes of smoke wafted over the capital, including from an area close to the sprawling Khadafy compound, suggesting that was a target.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said at least three people were killed and dozens wounded in strikes targeting what he described as buildings used by volunteer units of the army.
Government loyalists loudly beeped their car horns and fired guns, shouting their support for Khadafy.
Yesterday, the highest-ranking US diplomat in the Middle East was in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in eastern Libya, in a show of support, and Europe, France, and Britain pledged to deploy attack helicopters to help the rebel cause.
A State Department statement called the visit by Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, “another signal of the US’s support’’ for the rebels’ National Transitional Council, which it called “a legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people.’’
Several countries, including France and Italy, have recognized the council, while the United States, Britain, and others have only established a diplomatic presence in Benghazi.
Libya’s rebels have scrambled to organize their fighters and create a political leadership since the outbreak in mid-February of the uprising that seeks to oust Khadafy, in power for more than four decades.
Rebels now control the populated coastal strip in the country’s east and the western port city of Misurata, which Khadafy’s forces have besieged for months. They also control pockets in Libya’s western Nafusa mountain range.
The rebels’ offensive has been helped by the NATO bombing, which was ordered by the UN Security Council to protect civilians after Khadafy responded to the public uprising against his rule by unleashing his military and his militias.
Yesterday, the French defense minister announced that France and Britain would deploy attack helicopters in Libya as soon as possible. Gerard Longuet said the helicopters would be used to target military equipment in crowded urban areas while limiting civilian casualties.
Despite NATO bombing runs, the rebels have not been able to break Khadafy’s grip on the west of the country, including Tripoli.
Feltman plans to meet with council head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and others before his scheduled departure today.
The visit follows the opening of a European Union office on Sunday by that body’s top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, who said she looked forward to a better Libya “where Khadafy will not be in the picture.’’
Rebel leaders welcome the diplomatic contact, but say that only better weapons will help them defeat Khadafy.
SyriaSyria’s foreign minister acknowledged yesterday that European sanctions will hurt his country’s interests, but he said Damascus will not allow foreign countries to impose their will on Syria.
The European Union ordered an assets freeze and a visa ban on President Bashar Assad and members of his regime over its crackdown on an antigovernment uprising. The United States has also imposed sanctions.
“Just as the measures will hurt Syrian interests, they will also hurt European interests,’’ Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told state-run Syrian television.
Human rights groups say more than 900 people have been killed since the protests began in mid-March.