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Libya accuses NATO of trying to assassinate Gaddafi in Tripoli strike

By By Simon Denyer,

TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gaddafi’s government accused NATO on Monday of trying to assassinate him after coalition forces fired at least two large guided missiles at a sprawling complex in the capital where the Libyan leader lives, destroying offices and a library he uses.

In a statement, the NATO alliance described the attack, which occurred in the early hours of Monday, as a “precision strike” on a communications headquarters “that was used to coordinate attacks against civilians.” Libyan officials said it was an attempt to assassinate Gaddafi.

“We are regarding it as an attempt to assassinate the leader and unifying figure of this country and other political leaders of this country,” government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said at a news conference in front of the ruined buildings, describing it as an act “worthy of the mafia, of gangs, but not of governments.”

“How is this act of terrorism protecting civilians in Libya? How is this act of terrorism helping establish peace in Libya?” Ibrahim asked. “Targeting political leaders will only help make the situation worse.”

The Obama administration denied that the strike in central Tripoli was intended to kill Gaddafi. White House spokesman Jay Carney, when asked about the airstrike, said it was not U.S. policy to bring regime change in Libya.

“The goal of the mission is clear: protect the civilian population, enforce the no-fly zone, enforce the arms embargo,” Carney told reporters in Washington. Although it is up to NATO to select targets for airstrikes, he said, it is “certainly not the policy of the coalition, of this administration, to decapitate, if you will, or to effect regime change in Libya by force.”

About 130 miles east of the Libyan capital, the rebel-held port city of Misurata came under heavy shelling Monday for the third day in a row from loyalist forces camped out on the southern and southwestern outskirts, said Mohammed Ali, a rebel spokesman. By 5 p.m. local time, he said, at least 12 people had been killed and more than 22 injured in the latest barrages, which began overnight.

Gaddafi’s forces have intensified their shelling and rocketing of Misurata in the three days since the government said it was lifting the siege. As a result, the death toll has been climbing at a rate that is among the highest since the battle for Misurata began two months ago.

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that his country will take part in airstrikes on Libya to help strengthen the mission of protecting civilians. Italy had said earlier that it would not participate in the bombing, although it has provided other support.

Also Monday, U.S. officials said that the first shipment of food aid from U.S. farms bound for Libya arrived in Alexandria, Egypt. Officials said the U.N. World Food Program will store the supplies inside and outside Libya for use if the situation deteriorates.

“There’s concern the [food] supply chain will start breaking down” if Libyan troops continue their offensive against rebel-held towns, Mark Bartolini, director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, told reporters.

Bartolini said, however, that conditions in Libya appeared to have improved somewhat in recent days. Misurata had no further need for emergency food aid, officials said.

The food aid arriving Monday — 560 metric tons of vegetable oil and 270 metric tons of pinto beans — is part of a $5 million donation by the U.S. government of food from American farms. Washington has contributed an additional $5 million for food bought in countries closer to Libya. The United States is providing a total of $47 million toward humanitarian needs in Libya, much of which has been spent to help foreign workers fleeing the country.

The NATO attack in Tripoli was the second such strike on the Bab al-Aziziyah complex since Western powers began a campaign of airstrikes last month. It came hours after Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said that NATO should “cut the head of the snake off” and that Gaddafi and his entourage should wake up every day “wondering, ‘Will this be my last?’ ”

The complex, which is part residence for Gaddafi, part government offices and part military base, is also the scene of nightly celebrations by hundreds of civilians offering themselves as human shields to protect the Libyan leader against NATO. Security and fire department officials at the scene said no one had been badly hurt, but Ibrahim said three people were killed and 45 injured, 15 critically, all of them officials and civilians.

Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam said the government would not be cowed.

“The bombing which targeted Moammar Gaddafi’s office today . . . will only scare children. It’s impossible that it will make us afraid or give up or raise the white flag,” the younger Gaddafi was quoted as saying by the state-run JANA news agency.

“You, NATO, are waging a losing battle because you are backed by traitors and spies,” he said. “History has proved that no state can rely on them to win.”

Reporters in Tripoli first heard two huge explosions and saw a red flash in the direction of Moammar Gaddafi’s compound. There was also a third, smaller explosion, which officials said was an attack on a state television broadcasting facility, after which the signals from all three of its channels went down briefly.

Later, reporters were taken to the scene of the main attack and shown a destroyed building that officials said had contained offices and a library used by Gaddafi. Its roof had caved in, and many of its walls had collapsed. Shattered masonry, twisted metal and other debris were strewn over a large area.

A fire engine trained water on part of the building, while civilian supporters of the government, let in with members of the media, clambered on the rubble, chanted pro-Gaddafi slogans and waved their green flags as thick cement dust clouded the air.

An adjacent building, where Gaddafi had met South African President Jacob Zuma and a delegation of four other African presidents looking to broker a peace deal this month, was also badly damaged, with ruined chandeliers, furniture and picture frames spread amid the rubble.

It appeared doubtful that Gaddafi would have frequented such an obvious target, given the threat from NATO warplanes. In any case, he is thought to have built an underground complex at his residence. He has rarely been seen in public since coalition airstrikes began March 19, two days after a U.N. Security Council resolution authorized military intervention in Libya to protect civilians.

Ibrahim said Gaddafi was working as usual from a safe place in Tripoli and was very healthy and “in high spirits.”

NATO has been regularly aiming for the government’s command and control facilities in recent weeks, as part of what it describes as a campaign to steadily and deliberately degrade “the ability of the Gaddafi regime to launch and sustain attacks against his own people.”

In a hint of the possible dual nature of the compound that was targeted, journalists were not allowed to see an adjacent building damaged by the strike, a building that one bystander said was used by the military.

The attack was also not far from another building within the complex that was destroyed at the start of the air campaign. At the time, the alliance had described that building as another command and control center.

In the early hours of Saturday, reporters were also taken to the scene of another twin airstrike, which appeared to hit a underground complex just outside Bab al-Aziziyah.

When the bombs struck just after midnight Monday, the initial reaction among government minders and sympathizers at the main hotel where journalists are staying was a mixture of shock and anger.

But it swiftly turned back to the usual defiance, with government minders chanting pro-Gaddafi slogans as they escorted members of the media to the site in a bus. At Bab al-Aziziyah, one witness said that some people screamed when the bombs struck and that many left afterward. But others, the witness said, regrouped in front of state television cameras to resume their singing and chanting.

Staff writers Leila Fadel in Benghazi, Libya, and Mary Beth Sheridan and Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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