Gaddafi vows to fight on as NATO jets pound Tripoli

By Peter Graff

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Waves of NATO aircraft hit Tripoli on Tuesday in the most sustained bombardment of the Libyan capital since Western forces began air strikes in March.

By Tuesday afternoon, war planes were striking different parts of the city several times an hour, hour after hour, rattling windows and sending clouds of grey smoke into the sky, a Reuters correspondent in the center of the city said.

But Muammar Gaddafi vowed on Tuesday to fight to the death.

U.S. President Barack Obama said it was only a matter of time until the Libyan leader goes.

The Libyan government attributed earlier blasts to NATO air strikes on military compounds in the capital.

At least 29 people were killed in 60 strikes on the Libyan capital on Tuesday, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters. His account could not be independently verified.

Bombs have been striking the city every few hours since Monday, at a steadily increasing pace. On Tuesday they began before 11 a.m. (5 a.m. ET) and were continuing five hours later.

Air strikes were previously rarer and usually at night.

“We only have one choice: we will stay in our land dead or alive,” Gaddafi said in a fiery audio address, adding that his supporters were flocking to his vast Bab al-Aziziya compound, which was hit several times by NATO air strikes on Tuesday.

Describing planes flying overhead and explosions around him, Gaddafi was defiant.

“We are stronger than your missiles, stronger than your planes, and the voice of the Libyan people is louder than explosions,” he said in his customary impassioned tone.

He said he was ready to unleash between 250,000 to 500,00 Libyans to swarm across the country to cleanse it from “armed gangs,” a reference to rebels controlling eastern Libya.

“The Libyan people will march to the east or to the west or to any place where armed gangs are,” he said. “We will march on to disarm (them) without fighting,” he said.

About 150 Gaddafi supporters demonstrated in central Tripoli, firing AK-47s in the air and waving posters of him.

Gaddafi was last seen on state television on May 30.

BOMBING RAIDS

Major-General Nick Pope, Britain’s Chief of the Defense Staff’s Strategic Communications Officer, said several operations carried out by British fighter aircraft had targeted Gaddafi’s secret police headquarters and a military installation on Tripoli’s southwestern outskirts.

The bases, he said, were “engaged in the brutal repression of the civilian population and therefore a legitimate focus for NATO action.”

Libya’s state news agency Jana said NATO flew bombing missions over Gaddafi’s vast compound 12 times.

Obama said there had been “significant” progress in the NATO operation. “What you are seeing across the country is an inexorable trend of the regime forces being pushed back, being incapacitated,” Obama news conference in Washington.

“I think it is just a matter of time before Gaddafi goes.”

Gaddafi’s troops and the rebels have been in stalemate for weeks, 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.

Pro-Gaddafi forces pulled back to high ground outside Yafran, 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Tripoli on Tuesday, after the rebels lifted a weeks-long siege of the town. There were heavy exchanges of fire between the two sides, with anti-aircraft gun being used to hit targets on the ground.

Rebel commander Juma Ibrahim in Zintan told Reuters that Gaddafi’s forces had massed on Tuesday in their biggest numbers in the area since the start of the conflict.

“Gaddafi’s troops and vehicles (are) north of Kalaa (about 7 km east of Yafran) to prepare to stop the advance of rebels from Yafran and Zintan toward Tripoli,” he said.

“This is the largest number of troops we have seen in the western mountains since the war’s start,” he said, adding that despite NATO planes hovering overhead there had not been any strikes on Gaddafi troops there.

Accounts from the mountains could not be independently verified because access for reporters is limited.

DIPLOMATIC CONTACT WITH REBELS

As bombing intensifies, world powers were making diplomatic overtures to the rebels, including Russia and China, despite misgivings about interference in Libya’s sovereign affairs.

Mikhail Margelov, Special Representative for the President of Russia for Africa, told reporters in the rebel capital of Benghazi on Tuesday that Gaddafi can no longer represent Libya.

“We highly believe that Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy after the first bullet shot against the Libyan people,” he said.

“Russia is ready to help politically, economically and in any possible way … That is why we have established a direct relationship with the national council here in Benghazi.”

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 too is courting the insurgents.

China has declined to take sides, but its moves reflect recognition that Gaddafi’s days may be numbered, said Yin Gang, an Arab expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Libya’s pro-Gaddafi Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi is visiting China as a “special envoy” for his government and will hold talks with his counterpart Yang Jiechi.

(Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Youssef Boudlal in Yafran, Joseph Nasr in Rabat, Sami Aboudi in Cairo, Brian Love in Paris, Tim Cocks in Tunis, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matt Spetalnick and Laura MacInnis in Washington, Michael Holden in London and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Tim Cocks and John Irish; Editing by Jon Hemming)