The streets of Tripoli began to echo with the thunder of bombs a few seconds before 2 a.m. this morning as American attack jets struck, realizing in a few minutes the worst fears of people here, including both Libyans and foreign workers, who had grown increasingly apprehensive in the past 24 hours that just such an attack would come.
For almost 10 minutes the rumble of explosives shook the city. Then there were a few minutes of calm and then another strike. Only sporadic antiaircraft fire answered and the capital of Libya seemed almost unprepared for the attack that had come.
Only one flash of a single antiaircraft rocket could be seen going up from the breakwater at the port from the vantage point of the hotel right on the water in downtown Tripoli.
The Grand Hotel, where the foreign journalists are staying, shook with the explosions several times. But only at the end of the strike did the lights of the hotel and the rest of the city go out.
Libyan officials later said that at least 60 persons were injured in the raid. Reporters who were taken on a brief bus tour by the Information Ministry several hours after the attack saw heavy damage to the French Embassy and to several buildings in the vicinity. There were deep craters in several streets in the same neighborhood.
Whether Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's headquarters in the Azizyah Barracks were hit about four miles away was impossible to say. Soldiers blocked the exits of the hotel and reporters were not allowed to leave until about 6 a.m. Smoke could be seen rising well within the city limits. How much damage was done to what used to be the big U.S. Wheelus Air Base and is now called Miaitiqah Field is almost impossible to judge. But in the far distance, from that general direction in the night sky, it was possible to see the glow of what seemed to be fires or spotlights or both.
Libyan Radio claimed three U.S. planes were shot down and their pilots killed by Libyan citizens. [In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said one U.S. jet was unaccounted for.]
After about 20 minutes, the raid was over. Journalists began to hear reports over network phone connections that the U.S. jets had flown back to base.
Between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. shots rang out again and rockets appeared to be fired in every direction. It was not clear what the target of the shooting was, and it appeared to be a display of fireworks for the benefit of the Libyan people.
Libyan Radio said a number of Qaddafi's relatives were injured in a strike on his residence, Reuters reported. The radio also said "a number of civilians, most of them foreign nationals, have fallen."
The radio report, monitored by the British Broadcasting Corporation, came after two U.S. television networks reported that the Libyan leader's headquarters were among targets in the postmidnight raid.
Libyan Radio said: "The savage American invaders carried out a treacherous and barbaric air strike this morning against the residence of the brother leader of the revolution Qaddafi ."
"A number of members of the family of the brother leader were injured as a result of this raid," the radio said. One of Qaddafi's residences is a Bedouin-style tent in an Army barracks in Tripoli.
Qaddafi, who seized power at the age of 27 in 1969, is married and has several young children.
Tripoli had waited nervously for this moment all day. And all week there had been signs that Libya hoped to back away from what now seems to have been the inevitable and violent confrontation of early this morning.
In the hours preceding the attack, Libya had bolstered its defenses and once again sought to distance itself from the terrorist actions that had precipitated the current crisis.
Underscoring tensions that appeared higher and more widespread than during last month's clashes in the Gulf of Sidra, a Foreign Ministry statement earlier in the day said that Libya has "no relation to the recent terroristic attempts" on an American airliner approaching Athens and at a discotheque in West Berlin.
In what might have been an attempt to respond to Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead's remarks Sunday that Washington would "back away" from the confrontation if Libya halts "dozens" of planned terrorist acts, the statement declared that "Libya is against all terroristic operations -- hijacking airplanes and the murder of innocents -- and its legislation prohibits such acts and punishes their perpetrators."
Earlier tonight, referring to the possibility of sanctions by Western Europe and the U.S. naval buildup off its shores, Libya's equivalent of a prime minister, Jadallah Azuz Talhi, declared that "there is no justification for any military, political or economic action against Libya.
"Libya is not afraid of an American attack, but will face it and defeat it," Talhi said. But the mood of officials here in the capital was considerably more apprehensive than during earlier confrontations with Washington in January and March.
"He's rattled this time," one Asian envoy said of Qaddafi.
Official statements still retained some of the now familiar warnings of apocalyptic retaliation. The Foreign Ministry repeated, for instance, the threat to use "suicide squads throughout the world" in response to a U.S. attack. Libya would strike back "with all its might against all targets which represent a backup for the aggressors," it said.
But at the same time the Foreign Ministry asserted Libya's interest "in making the Mediterranean a sea of peace and cooperation" that includes southern European nations providing the United States with naval facilities.
Diplomats whose countries have military ties to Libya said yesterday that officials were expecting direct American strikes on major targets this time, possibly including sites in or near the capital.
The American attacks on a missile base at Surt and on Libyan vessels in the Gulf of Sidra last month, although they may have cost the lives of more than 60 Libyan sailors, made so little impact on this country's major cities that Qaddafi was able to claim the engagement domestically as a victory.
More aggressive bombing of targets near the cities, however, could create havoc here, in the opinion of several diplomats. Fighter planes at Miaitiqah Field were said by diplomats to have been dispersed in recent days with some craft being flown inland to protect them from bombing.
Military equipment has been seen moving through the streets in larger quantities than usual and at some government installations in the capital mobile antiaircraft missile launchers recently have been placed in positions visible from major roads.
Other diplomats report that hospitals have been put on alert, extra beds have been moved in and emergency facilities are being expanded.
According to one envoy with good connections in the Libyan military, the government here decided that it would take no provocative action when the U.S. fleet approached as it did in March by firing Soviet-made SA5 missiles at American jets.
The strategy this time, the diplomat said, is to let the Americans strike first then retaliate with an all-out effort to hit at least one of the American ships and inflict some undeniable American casualties.
Except for the increased movement of materiel, the government has sought to preserve an air of relative calm in the streets of the capital and avoid panicking the residents.
Qaddafi's orders to evacuate some military bases that might be targeted and install foreign workers in them, while stated flatly to the foreign press Saturday night, have not been reported in the domestic media.
Nor has the mass relocation of expatriates to military facilities, suggested by Qaddafi, materialized. According to diplomatic and business sources, only five companies -- two West German, two South Korean and one Swedish -- have been told to move their workers onto military sites for "maintenance and repairs." None of the estimated 1,000 Americans here are involved as yet, according to diplomats.
The ambassadors of the affected countries refused to talk to reporters this afternoon.
But foreign residents who were relatively complacent in earlier stages of the crisis have been making plans in the past few days for a much more serious emergency.
Today the German school was closed and West Germans here say their wives and children have been advised by the embassy to leave the country for at least a week. European diplomats reported that the Swedes are discussing contingency plans for evacuation.
Meanwhile the Italian Embassy, dealing with nearly 8,000 Italians here, has been preoccupied with the plight of the Italian bishop of Libya and an Italian nun apparently arrested Thursday night along with three other priests by revolutionary guards in Benghazi. No word has yet been given on why they were detained or when they will be released.