The official, who cautioned that details were still being confirmed, provided information about the attack on condition of anonymity, because the incident had not been publicly announced by the French government.
Western airstrikes hit numerous targets in Libya overnight, and NATO ships patrolled the coast to block the arrival of weapons or new fighters loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
At the same time, international aid organizations scrambled to address a potential humanitarian crisis in Misurata, a key city 130 miles east of Tripoli that has been besieged by government forces.
Airstrikes by Western allies on Wednesday seemed to bring a temporary respite from the fighting that had raged for six days in the city. But after nightfall, government tanks returned to the city center and resumed their attacks, according to a doctor at the city’s main hospital. “They are shelling everywhere,” he said by telephone.
Patients were being treated on the floor, medical supplies were falling short, fuel for the generator was running low, and water had been cut off, said the doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation by Libyan forces.
Humanitarian agencies and the U.S. government have been stockpiling supplies in eastern Libya and in nearby countries in case of emergency. “I am now worried about a humanitarian crisis in Misurata,” said Mark Ward, a top official with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Libyan state television showed blackened and mangled bodies that it said were victims of airstrikes in Tripoli, AP reported. But the identity of the corpses could not be independently confirmed.
The Obama administration continued trying to shore up domestic backing for its role in the operation and to counter criticisms that the president had been either too cautious or too aggressive.
In a call with reporters, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) predicted strong bipartisan support for the U.S. role when Congress reconvenes next week. Durbin said that President Obama had chosen a “very wise course, reminiscent of President George H. W. Bush . . . who built international cooperation” before initiating military action against Iraqi forces in Kuwait in 1991.
But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sent a letter to Obama on Wednesday saying that he and other lawmakers were troubled that “U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America’s role is in achieving that mission.”