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NATO hit on headquarters squeezes Gadhafi

Libyan spokesman denounces bombing as failed assassination attempt

TRIPOLI (AP) ― The latest NATO airstrike on Moammar Gadhafi’s compound that reduced parts of it to a smoldering ruin steps up pressure on the increasingly embattled Libyan leader as he struggles to hold onto the western half of the country.

A Libyan government spokesman denounced Monday’s bombing as a failed assassination attempt, saying the 69-year-old leader was healthy, “in high spirits” and carrying on business as usual.

A separate airstrike elsewhere in Tripoli targeted Libyan TV and temporarily knocked it off the air, a government spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

Since an armed uprising erupted in mid-February, Gadhafi has been clinging to control in the western half of Libya, while opposition forces run most of the east. A NATO campaign of airstrikes has sought to break a battlefield stalemate, and the U.S. last week added armed U.S. Predator drones to the mission. Italy said Monday its military will join in strategic bombing raids in Libya.

NATO said its latest airstrike sought to destroy a communications headquarters used to coordinate attacks on civilians. A spokesman for the alliance said it is increasingly targeting facilities linked to Gadhafi’s regime.

“We have moved on to those command and control facilities that are used to coordinate such attacks by regime forces,” the spokesman said of the strike on Bab al-Aziziya, which was hit last month, early in the NATO air campaign. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military briefing regulations.

Gadhafi’s forces unleashed new shelling Monday on Misrata that killed at least 10 people, following a weekend pounding that belied government claims its troops were holding their fire as they withdrew from the western city that has been besieged for nearly two months.

Among the dead from a shattered residential neighborhood was an entire family, according to a doctor in Misrata. Mourners later carried six crudely constructed coffins of family members, plus one child who had been visiting, to a funeral near a mosque.

Local hospitals have been overwhelmed by the rising casualties.

“As soon as we clear out the hospital of injuries, Gadhafi fills it up for us again,” said the doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

The assault on Misrata, which has claimed hundreds of lives, has deepened Gadhafi’s international isolation. It has also prompted new demands that Libya’s ruler of 41 years be ousted as part of the international bombing campaign, unleashed a month ago to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi’s forces.

In the attack on Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound, which was at least the third NATO strike on the site in the capital, two powerful guided bombs struck a multistory library and office building. Loose pages from books were scattered across the debris-filled ground covered by soot and water from fire trucks.

The blast also damaged a nearby reception hall, furnished with big sofas and chandeliers and site of a meeting between Gadhafi and African leaders only two weeks earlier. In one room, a large round meeting table was covered by a thick layer of dust. Workers wearing face masks washed away the soot with water hoses.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said three people were killed and 45 wounded, 15 of them seriously, by the airstrikes. He did not elaborate and turned down a request to arrange for interviews with the wounded.

Shortly after the strike, however, a security official at the scene had said four people were slightly hurt. Ibrahim said all those killed and wounded had worked at the library building.

Ibrahim declined comment on whether Gadhafi was in the compound at the time, but said the Libyan government considered it “as an attempt to assassinate the leader and unifying figure of this country.”

“He is well. He is healthy. He is in high spirits,” Ibrahim said of Gadhafi, who has made infrequent appearances in Tripoli since the uprising began. The leader was conducting business as usual, meeting with government officials and tribal elders, Ibrahim told reporters at the scene.

Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, claimed that his father has “millions of Libyans with him” and said NATO’s mission was doomed to fail. “In history, no country has achieved victory with spies and traitors and collaborators. ... NATO, you are the losers,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency JANA.

But daily life in western Libya has become more difficult as a result of the fighting and international sanctions.

Lines for gasoline are growing longer in the oil-rich country, with some drivers saying it takes days to reach the pump and others reporting that punches have been thrown and guns have been drawn as tempers flared among motorists.

A driver in the town of Zuwara said he had been waiting in line for five days. Along the coastal road outside Tripoli, every gas station had huge lines stretching for hundreds of yards, six cars wide.

A doctor in Tripoli said all the gas lines that he has seen have also had security forces to keep order.

“It is very tense,” he said, saying he saw fights break out over someone cutting ahead in line, with men shouting, brawling and kicking car windows. Sometimes security men intervene, but other times they just watch, said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared government retaliation.