Libyan officials are seeking to change the airstrike narrative of “protecting” Libyan civilians to one of US and European aircraft deliberately targeting Col. Muammar Qaddafi for regime change, after a cruise missile struck the leader’s compound in central Tripoli.
Late Sunday a plume of smoke rose over Colonel Qaddafi’s compound. Coalition sources said the target was a military command center; Qaddafi supporters said the West's aim was assassination.
“It is extremely close to the leader’s tent, and a house that was bombed by the Americans in 1986,” said government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim at the site, according to Reuters. "They said that they will not attack this place because there are civilians here, and they said they do not have intention to kill the leader, Qaddafi."
Allied sources said that they struck a military control center at the site. They added that Qaddafi himself was not a specific target, but rather his forces, which had pummeled rebels for the past week in an attempt to regain rebel-held territory in the east – including the key oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega.
After Qaddafi's forces captured Ajdabiya, the last major city on the road to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, the United Nations Security Council passed a strong resolution authorizing "all necessary means" to protect civilians from Qaddafi's advances.
“We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime’s air defense capability,” US Navy Vice Adm. William Gortney said in Washington. “We believe his forces are under significant stress and suffering from both isolation and a good deal of confusion.”
Indeed, in Tripoli, the red tracer rounds of antiaircraft fire arced several times through the night sky late Sunday and early Monday, though no sound of aircraft could be heard. At one mobile gun emplacement a few hundred yards from a luxury hotel, gunners fired volley after volley even as they kept rotating their gun, sending a spray of bullets toward the sky with no apparent targets.
Doubt about compound strike
Journalists were taken after midnight to a portion of the Qaddafi compound that Libyan officials said had been hit. Several said they were convinced the strike had occurred there; one had visited the building intact one week ago.
Some eyewitnesses raised doubt about whether the “administration building” in Qaddafi’s compound – not far from the building that was hit by American planes in 1986, and left in ruins since then – had in fact been recently hit.
The script accompanying video footage sent by Reuters stated it could not verify a fresh strike. A photograph of the site by the Associated Press showed what appears to be a small palm tree high in the rubble without dust. A security adviser of a Western television crew who visited the scene said he did not think a new strike had occurred there.
“The facade of a building was clearly in ruin, with rubble strewn about, but there was nothing like smoke, fire or smell to suggest an attack two hours earlier. There was no furniture or broken glass,” Reuters reported.
"I don’t know why there is no smoke. I am not a military expert," said Mr. Ibrahim, the government spokesmen, after Reuters pressed the issue. No one was killed or injured and it is unclear whether Qaddafi was in the compound.
But Libyans at the scene were clearly angry and held up chunks of what appeared to be missile parts and shrapnel, and chanted pro-Qaddafi slogans. The strike capped a day when Qaddafi vowed to wage a “long war, [with] patience that has no limits.”
'Where's the protection?'
Anger was also evident earlier in the day at a funeral turned pro-regime rally in Tripoli for more than two dozen killed in the first night of strikes. Family members wept for an infant and a man in his late 20s, whom family members said were killed during some of the 112 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes conducted on the first night.
Mohammed Salim said his 3-month-old niece Siham Tabib was killed when at home near a military base in the Tajura district. His fingers were covered with dirt after completing the concrete cover over the small grave, which was marked with three carnations – white, pink, and red – and a strip of green cloth.
Two dozen soldiers were also meant to be buried but were never brought to the cemetery on the shore above the Mediterranean Sea. Virtually no mourning family members were evident among those waving green Libyan flags and holding posters of Qaddafi.
They fiercely criticized France and the US as leaders of the military effort to use “all necessary means” – the mandate of the UN Security Council resolution – to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi’s recapture of rebel-held territory.
“We see lots of people die and people ask why,” said Firas, a thick-bearded young man in bare feet who was waiting to take part in the burial. The Americans, Europeans and Arab allies “say they came to protect the people. Where’s the protection?”
“This is all our family, our [Libyan] blood is the same blood,” said another man among the hundreds at the cemetery, who identified himself only as a “citizen.” “We need outside governments to stop this war.”