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The airstrike and resulting deaths are likely to increase the accusations that NATO has overstepped the bounds of a United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized it to protect civilians. It comes after Libyan rebels rejected Colonel Qaddafi’s offer Saturday of a conditional cease-fire and negotiations.
The Libyan government said Qaddafi’s youngest son, the relatively unknown Saif al-Arab Qaddafi, was killed in an airstrike on a Tripoli house Saturday evening. (A similarly-named son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, who has played a sometimes prominent role addressing foreign media, was not reported hurt.) It said the three grandchildren killed were pre-teens.
Reuters reports that Libyan officials took journalists to the house, which appeared to have been hit by at least three missiles that had caved in the roof in places and left mangled steel rods and chunks of concrete. The home was in a wealthy residential area and Reuters reports that what appeared to be an unexploded missile lay among the debris.
At a press conference Sunday morning, a Qaddafi government spokesman said that Qaddafi and his wife had been at the house but were not harmed. “This was a direct operation to assassinate the leader of this country,” said the spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, reports The New York Times. “This is not permitted by international law. It is not permitted by any moral code or principle.”
The NATO mission’s commander, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, said in a statement that the airstrike had not targeted the Libyan leader and called the four deaths unconfirmed.
“All NATO’s targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the Qaddafi regime’s systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas. We do not target individuals,” he said. A NATO source told The New York Times that NATO officials were not aware that Qaddafi or his family members were in the house when they ordered the airstrike.
British Prime Minister David Cameron defended NATO's actions on Sunday, saying that the UN resolution to protect civilians also means targeting command and control, as well as military hardware, reports Voice of America.
But the criticism of NATO has already begun. The Guardian reports that Russian and Venezuelan officials were quick to react to the bombing. "More and more facts indicate that the purpose of the anti-Libyan coalition is to physically destroy Qaddafi," said Russian MP Konstantin Kosachev Sunday.
The Libyan regime will use the apparent death of close members of Qaddafi's family to reinforce its claims that Nato is acting illegitimately and that Libya is a victim of a western plot to topple Qaddafi.
UN resolution 1973 permits military action to protect Libyan civilians, which has been interpreted as covering Libyan military facilities, such as command and control centers, as well as military equipment in the field. It does not permit the specific targeting of individuals.
The airstrike on the capital came after opposition leaders in the eastern city of Benghazi rejected Qaddafi’s offer early Saturday to engage in negotiations if the NATO attacks stopped, reports Al Jazeera.
"Qaddafi’s regime has lost all credibility. The people of Libya cannot possibly envisage or accept a future Libya in which Qaddafi’s regime plays any role,” Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, vice president of the opposition Transitional National Council, said in a statement, according to Al Jazeera. NATO had also rejected the offer, saying it wanted to see “not words, but actions” from Qaddafi, whose forces have attacked civilian areas.
In the televised speech, Qaddafi said he would not leave Libya, and appeared “tired and subdued,” reports The Wall Street Journal. That is a contrast to earlier fiery speeches, in which he has called the opposition “rats.” Still, his words were defiant. “"I'm not leaving my country," he said. "No one can force me to leave my country and no one can tell me not to fight for my country."