Libyan officials denounced the Western air campaign as inhumane after allied forces hit Tripoli overnight Wednesday with some of the biggest strikes yet seen in the capital and fresh attacks that began after dark Thursday.
Even as forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi reportedly continued offensives against rebels in several cities, state TV blamed the "crusader aggression" for attacking both military and civilian targets and showed images that it claimed were of those killed and wounded by the strikes.
Qaddafi's government has claimed dozens of deaths since the United Nations Security Council authorized "all necessary measures" to protect civilians from Qaddafi loyalists.
But evidence of casualties has been thin, despite more than 160 cruise missile strikes by US and British forces, and at least 175 sorties by those and French and a Canadian jet fighter in the last 24-hour count.
The civilian death toll nationwide was "getting close to 100," government spokesman Musa Ibrahim claimed late Thursday. He said the Libyans had received "intelligence" that allied forces would strike broadcasting and telecommunications infrastructure overnight.
Qaddafi sought to portray the strikes as a source of strength for the Libyan people, in a recent speech that was still being quoted by state TV Wednesday morning.
“The aggression can only provide the Libyan people with power, unity, and hardness with a united national front,” Qaddafi said. The Libyan leader added that “all the [weapons] stores are open and the masses are armed to defend” his leadership.
'Large number' of civilians killed – state media
Libya’s official JANA news agency said the Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on a military base in the Tajura district of Tripoli late Wednesday had killed “a large number” of civilians.
The agency said a third raid had “targeted rescuers who were trying to remove the dead and wounded from the rubble and the destruction caused by the first two raids,” according to Agence France-Presse.
The footage playing Thursday morning showed what appeared to be a pro-Qaddafi militiaman – a young man with a green swath of cloth used as a headband – lying on a gurney with blood on his face. Another wounded male was shown on another gurney.
The camera also showed the inside of a morgue, with more than a dozen bodies in zipped up hospital-green body bags. The footage was from a Reuters team taken to the central Tripoli hospital after 3 a.m. The bodies they saw were all male and charred and some were struck with large pieces of shrapnel – injuries that appeared consistent with allied attacks. Reuters was told there were 18 or 19 bodies there.
Little evidence of casualties
Such evidence of casualties has been hard to come by, despite the presence of scores of tightly controlled foreign journalists in the Libyan capital.
Yet before sunset Thursday, officials presided over a mass burial in a Tripoli cemetery, filling 15 of the 23 graves that were dug – and inexplicably never filled – during a widely photographed "funeral" for soldiers last Sunday.
On Thursday, 13 coffins draped with flowers were later joined by 20 others, though only 18 were officially buried at the cemetery, while the remaining coffins – marked only by numbers, and possibly not airstrike casualties – were taken away.
That was not the only uncertainty about casualties.
Journalists offered an escorted visit Wednesday to see a house where a family of five was claimed to have been strike and wounded were led around a neighborhood for 45 minutes, before being returned – with official apologies – to their hotel.
That visit was prompted by Libyan TV footage Wednesday morning that purported to show a residential house on fire, women shrieking and slapping their faces with grief as a barefoot girl covered with blood was carried on a stretcher.
But the peculiar lighting and editing made the event – which included a man shouting “a whole family was killed” – appear to have been staged.
Clashes elsewhere in the country
Elsewhere in the country, pro-Qaddafi and rebel forces remained locked in a stalemate in the eastern city of Ajdabiya on Thursday, with neither side able to take the advantage.
In Misratah, a rebel-held enclave 130 miles east of Tripoli that is surrounded by tribes loyal to Qaddafi, residents contacted by phone by media organizations reported that allied airstrikes forced Qaddafi tanks to retreat during daylight hours Wednesday afternoon, only for them to return after dark and continue shelling near the city’s sole hospital. There was no way to independently confirm the reports.
In Zintan, a town southwest of Tripoli close to Libya’s border with Tunisia, one resident told Reuters that Qaddafi forces were mobilizing tank and other units around the town.
Britain: Libyan air force crushed
British Royal Air Force Vice Marshall Greg Bagwell claimed Wednesday that the Libyan Air Force “no longer exists as a fighting force.” No Libyan military plane has taken to the skies since allied strikes began last Saturday.
But Libyan TV sought to portray a nation at war, and being victorious. It broadcast footage of fireworks being fired above Tripoli’s central Green Square, and showed dated video of uniformed women undergoing military training.
Also shown were old pictures of a soldier loading a 120mm mortar into a tube, Libyan Air Force jets flying, and a Libyan pilot climbing into a cockpit with little apparent confidence, as he fumbled with his helmet.