Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
In this photo taken on a guided tour by the Libyan government, a Libyan holds a portrait of Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi at a naval military facility damaged by coalition air strikes, in eastern Tripoli Tuesday.

Libyan officials decry air strikes as immoral and undemocratic

On a tour of a missile storage area that was still smoldering, Libyan officials cast the UN-sanctioned air strikes as contrary to Western values and inconsistent with the stated aim of protecting civilians.

As criticism of the scope of allied air attacks on Libya rises from South Africa to Russia, Libyan officials Tuesday took journalists to a recent target: a set of large sheds on a Tripoli naval base that housed aging missile equipment and workshops.

Six Tomahawk cruise missiles – of the 161 fired against Libya so far – struck the facility Monday night, in one of the latest salvos of a United Nations-endorsed air operation meant to stop forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from crushing antigovernment rebels.

US commanders say the strikes have crippled the Libyan military advance. But amid the smoldering ruins Tuesday, Libyan officials claimed this strike stepped beyond the mandate of the UN Security Council resolution that authorizes “all necessary means” to protect civilians.

They charge that the Western attacks against Libya are antidemocratic, and that they want a peaceful solution – despite much evidence to the contrary from authorities here. Their reaction is a mixture of sadness, anger, and bravado.

“What does this have to do with protecting innocent civilians? The goal is to destroy Libya’s capabilities,” said one official who organized the visit and would only let herself be identified as Dr. Aisha. “This is going to embarrass them in front of international opinion.”

'Good morning, victory!'

Driving through the city during the bombardment Monday night, one could see some Libyans on the streets climbing on their cars and waving green Libyan flags to shout in defiant celebration, as antiaircraft fire erupted from gun emplacements across the city.

Early Tuesday, one radio station kept up the surreal theme, telling listeners: “Good morning, victory!” On its morning news ticker, State-run Libyan TV made no mention of the air strikes or their impact.

Blackened corrugated sheeting swung from the roof structure, above four Soviet-era missile launchers that were wrecked in the strikes. Three missiles – dummies used for training, the Libyans said – nested untouched under faded tarpaulins in a corner.

Smoke rose from a mountain of large paint cans, and in other warehouses precision machining equipment was destroyed. At one crater, chunks of metal from one missile had been piled up, including a round silver cylinder the size of a peanut butter jar labeled, “Battery: Lithium Thermal.”

“The solution is not like this, striking this place,” said Capt. Abdul of the Libyan Navy, who said he trained last year with the French Navy, and prior to that with Italian and Egyptian navies.

He said there were no casualties in the strike, because officers had received “warnings that this place may be targeted.” And none of the handful of nearby military ships were damaged. But the captain said the missile attacks were a “catastrophe” for Libya.

“We hope to solve this peacefully. The solution is dialogue, to talk,” said Captain Abdul.

'This aggression is immoral' – government spokesman

Yet there has been little soothing talk by any side during the uprising that began in Libya in mid-February, with the aim of toppling Col. Qaddafi in the same manner that revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt brought down decades-old dictatorships.

Instead there have been optimistic pockets of rebellion by people dismissed by Qaddafi as “terrorists” and “rats,” which spread to finally control the east of the country. The rebels were losing ground until Saturday – their remnant activists crushed with determined brutality in some cities – when the first US and French air strikes hit Libyan units.

The stated aim of the Security Council resolution is to protect civilians, but Libyan officials criticized the mission as "immoral" and inconsistent with its stated mission.

“The claim that this aggression is to save civilian lives in absurd,” said Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim late Monday, after the strike began on the Abu Sitr naval base. The attacks against Libya are part of a “pre-planned conspiracy” to control Libya’s oil, he charged.

“Why do you choose to come under the cover of night to kill people?” asked Mr. Ibrahim. “This war or this aggression is dirty, is immoral, is illegal; it’s happening in front of your eyes, and the world’s eyes.”

'Europeans should stand beside us'

That view was echoed at the naval base by one young officer, who stood in front of the four destroyed Russian missile launch systems.

“I’m so sad about the European people. They should stand beside us and not fight us,” said naval officer Riyadh Agil, who witnessed the attack on his naval base. “We are human beings. If I had a weapon the same as the Americans, I am not going to do the same thing…. Where is the democracy, as they said?”

“We have a saying from long ago that any bomb, if it doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger,” said Mr. Agil. And then with bravado, and pointing to his chest: “Even if a Tomahawk lands on my chest, I’m not scared.”

'Qaddafi came and paid us every month'

The official visit for journalists was joined – as is often the case at government-sponsored events set-up for foreign journalists here – by a noisy group of a dozen young Qaddafi loyalists. They arrived amid the ruins chanting pro-regime slogans, raising guns and green swaths of cloth above their heads, and then climbed amid the wreckage with framed posters of their leader.

Despite the violence in recent weeks, and the documented atrocities that have accrued as Qaddafi’s forces fulfilled his vow to show “no mercy” to rebels, one elderly man was sanguine.

“Before the [1969] revolution, we had six prime ministers, they gave us not a thing,” said Mahfud Turki, speaking in a downtown coffee shop without a government minder present. “But Qaddafi came and he paid us every month. He came from a poor background and was a lieutenant. He’s from the people.”

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