Blasts in Tripoli, Libya says military compounds hit

By Peter Graff

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Explosions shook Tripoli on Tuesday in what the Libyan government said were NATO air strikes on military compounds in the capital, a day after rebels drove Muammar Gaddafi’s forces out of a western town.

The rare daytime strikes on the center of the city, which hit the capital over the course of about half an hour before noon, sent columns of grey smoke into the sky.

NATO air strikes, ongoing since March, are usually at night.

Some of the bombs appeared to hit in the vicinity of Gaddafi’s vast Bab al-Aziziya residential compound.

A Libyan official, speaking over a loudspeaker in a hotel where foreign journalists are based, said the strikes had hit the Popular Guard compound and the Revolutionary Guard compound.

He gave no information about casualties, and said it would not be possible for reporters to visit the sites because they are not open to civilians.

The Libyan capital and vicinity has come under increased attack by NATO bombers in recent days, with strikes hitting the city and its outskirts every few hours.

Libyan TV said late on Monday NATO had bombed the al-Karama neighborhood and a civilian telecommunications station.

“The crusading colonial aggressor … hit and destroyed a communications center west of Tripoli, severing land communications in some areas. The station is civilian,” it said.

NATO said it hit a military “command and control target.”

“As long as Gaddafi continues to threaten civilians, NATO will maintain the pressure upon his regime and will continue to degrade his ability to attack the population of Libya,” said Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, NATO Libya commander.

Gaddafi’s troops and the rebels have been in stalemate for weeks, with neither able to hold territory on a road between Ajdabiyah, which Gaddafi’s forces shelled on Monday, and the Gaddafi-held oil town of Brega further west.

Rebels control the east of Libya, the western city of Misrata and the range of mountains near the border with Tunisia. They have been unable to advance on the capital against Gaddafi’s better-equipped forces, despite NATO air strikes.

But in a sign those strikes may be aiding the rebel advance, the rebels seized Yafran, 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Tripoli, on Monday, after British warplanes had destroyed two tanks and two armored personnel carriers there on June 2.

NATO Apache attack helicopters were in action in the east on Sunday, destroying a rocket launcher system on the coast near the eastern town of Brega, Britain’s Defense Ministry said.

The use of helicopters is a step-up of military operations designed to break the deadlock.

ICG URGES CEASEFIRE

In a report on Monday, the International Crisis Group (ICG) urged the rebels and their NATO allies to propose a ceasefire, arguing that demands Gaddafi step down as pre-condition and threats of war crimes charges had forced him into a corner.

“The (rebels) and their NATO supporters appear uninterested in resolving the conflict through negotiation,” it said.

“To insist that he (Gaddafi) must go now, as the precondition for any negotiation … is to render a ceasefire all but impossible and so to maximize the prospect of continued armed conflict. To insist that he both leave … and face trial in the International Criminal Court is virtually to ensure that he will stay in Libya to the bitter end and go down fighting.”

Western governments and rebels say a combination of NATO air strikes, diplomatic isolation and grassroots opposition will eventually bring an end to Gaddafi’s rule.

But Gaddafi has said he has no intention of stepping down, saying he is supported by all Libyans apart from a minority of “rats” and al Qaeda militants, and says the NATO intervention is a Western plot to steal Libya’s oil.

In Brussels on Monday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen but said he would repeat calls for NATO allies to step up involvement, at a NATO defense ministers meeting this week.

NATO last week decided to extend operations in Libya for another 90 days, or until the end of September.

Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez will travel to the Libyan city of Benghazi to meet rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil on Wednesday, her ministry said.

In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said an Egypt-based Chinese diplomat had visited Benghazi for talks with the rebel-led National Transitional Council, adding to signs that China is courting the insurgents.

The diplomat went to the city to “understand the local humanitarian situation and the state of Chinese-funded firms,” the Foreign Ministry said on its website (www.mfa.gov.cn).

(Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Youssef Boudlal in Yafran, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Tim Cocks in Tunis and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Jon Boyle)