Tripoli, Libya (AP): A cruise missile blasted Muammar Qadhafi’s residential compound in an attack that carried as much symbolism as military effect, and fighter jets destroyed a line of tanks moving on the rebel capital. The United States said the international assault would hit any government forces attacking the opposition.
It was not known where Qadhafi was at the time the missile struck near his iconic tent late Sunday, but it seemed to show that while the allies trade nuances over whether the Libyan leader’s fall is a goal of their campaign, he is not safe.
Half of the round, three-storey administration building was knocked down, smoke was rising from it and pieces of the missile were scattered around, according to Associated Press photographer escorted to the scene by the Libyan government. About 300 Qadhafi supporters were in the compound at the time. It was not known if any were hurt.
The U.S. military said the bombardment so far, a rain of Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision bombs from American and European aircraft, including long-range stealth B-2 bombers, had hobbled Mr. Qadhafi’s air defences.
In addition to targeting anti-aircaft sites, the US, UK and French planes also went after tanks headed toward Benghazi, in the opposition-held eastern half of the country. On Sunday, at least seven demolished tanks smouldered in a field 20 kilometres south of Benghazi, many of them with their turrets and treads blown off, alongside charred armoured personnel carriers, jeeps and SUVs of the kind used by Qadhafi fighters.
“I feel like in two days maximum we will destroy Qadhafi,” said Ezzeldin Helwani, 35, a rebel standing next to the smouldering wreckage of an armoured personnel carrier, the air thick with smoke and the pungent smell of burning rubber. In a grisly sort of battle trophy, celebrating fighters hung a severed goat’s head with a cigarette in its mouth from the turret of one of the gutted tanks.
The strikes that began early Sunday gave respite to Benghazi, which the day before had been under a heavy attack that killed at least 120 people. The calm highlighted the dramatic turnaround that the allied strikes bring to Libya’s month-old upheaval. For the past 10 days, Qadhafi’s forces had been on a triumphant offensive against the rebel-held east, driving opposition fighters back with the overwhelming firepower of tanks, artillery, warplanes and warships.
Now Qadhafi’s forces are potential targets for US and European strikes. The UN resolution authorising international military action in Libya not only sets up a no-fly zone but allows “all necessary measures” to prevent attacks on civilians.
But the U.S. military, for now at the lead of the international campaign, is trying to walk a fine line over the end game of the assault. It is avoiding for now any appearance that it aims to take out Qadhafi or help the rebels oust him, instead limiting its stated goals to protecting civilians.
At the Pentagon, Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney underlined that strikes are not specifically targeting the Libyan leader or his residence in Tripoli. He said that any of Qadhafi’s ground forces advancing on the rebels were open targets.
“If they are moving on opposition forces … yes, we will take them under attack,” he told reporters.
“We judge these strikes to have been very effective in significantly degrading the regime’s air defense capability,” Gortney said. “We believe his forces are under significant stress and suffering from both isolation and a good deal of confusion.”
A military official said Air Force B-2 stealth bombers flew 25 hours in a round trip from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and dropped 45 2,000-pound bombs.
What happens if rebel forces eventually go on the offensive against Qadhafi’s troops remains unclear. Gortney would not say whether strikes would hit Libyan troops fighting back against rebel assaults.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said late Sunday that the US expects to turn over control of the operation to a coalition headed by France, Britain or NATO “in a matter of days,” reflecting concern that the US military was stretched thin by its current missions. Turkey was blocking NATO action, which requires agreement by all 28 members of the alliance.
Sunday night, heavy anti-aircraft fire erupted repeatedly in the capital, Tripoli, with arcs of red tracer bullets and exploding shells in the dark sky, marking the start of a second night of international strikes. Qadhafi supporters in the streets shot automatic weapons in the air in a show of defiance. It was not immediately known what was being targeted in the new strikes.
Libyan army spokesman Col. Milad al-Fokhi said Libyan army units had been ordered to cease fire at 9 p.m. local time, but the hour passed with no letup in military activity.
Mr. Qadhafi vowed to fight on. In a phone call to Libyan state television Sunday, he said he would not let up on Benghazi and said the government had opened up weapons depots to all Libyans, who were now armed with “automatic weapons, mortars and bombs.” State television said Qadhafi’s supporters were converging on airports as human shields. “We promise you a long war,” he said.
Throughout the day Sunday, Libyan TV showed a stream of what it said were popular demonstrations in support of Qadhafi in Tripoli and other towns and cities. It showed cars with horns blaring, women ululating, young men waving green flags and holding up pictures of the Libyan leader. Women and children chanted, “God, Muammar and Libya, that’s it!”
“Our blood is green, not red,” one unidentified woman told the broadcaster, referring to the signature colour of Qadhafi’s regime. “He is our father, we will be with him to the last drop of blood. Our blood is green with our love for him.”