TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi defiantly insisted Friday he would outlast NATO’s pounding of the country’s capital, and his government denied a report that he had been injured in a powerful attack.
“I tell the coward crusaders — I live in a place that you cannot reach. I live in the hearts of millions,” Gaddafi said in a brief audio recording played on Libyan state television.
Gaddafi appeared to be responding to comments by the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, that the Libya leader was “probably wounded” in a major missile strike a day earlier on what was apparently an underground bunker at his compound in Tripoli. The Italian official was citing a remark by the Vatican envoy in Tripoli, Archbishop Giovanni Martinelli.
But Frattini acknowledged he had no evidence, and State Department spokesman Marc Toner said the U.S. government had “seen nothing to confirm those reports” of Gaddafi being hit. Libyan officials said Gaddafi was not injured.
NATO forces have launched strikes on Libya for two months under a U.N. resolution authorizing them to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s attacks. In recent days, the coalition has escalated strikes on the capital to degrade Gaddafi’s war machine and push him to give up.
The pressure on Gaddafi appeared likely to further escalate: The International Criminal Court said prosecutors would produce arrest warrants Monday for three people accused of crimes against humanity in connection with the Libya strife. While officials declined to revel the names, it is widely assumed one of them will be Gaddafi.
An arrest warrant would limit Gaddafi’s options if he went into exile, analysts said, since most countries are signatories to the treaty that established the court.
In Washington, the Obama administration for the first time received a senior official from the Libyan opposition at the White House for consultations. Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, discussed with Mahmoud Jibril “how the United States and the coalition can provide additional support,” a statement said. No details were provided.
The White House said it viewed the opposition’s governing board, the Transitional National Council, as “ a legitimate and credible interlocutor of the Libyan people.”
But Jibril came away without any U.S. commitment to recognize the council as the legitimate government of Libya. The cash-strapped opposition has sought such recognition so it can quickly gain access to the tens of billions of dollars in Libyan assets frozen abroad under U.N. sanctions.
The U.S. government has provided humanitarian aid to Libya and pledged items like tents, boots and body armor for the rebels. The administration also has said it will work with Congress to unfreeze about $150 million in Libyan assets for humanitarian aid. But Jibril has complained that the legislative process will take too long.
Fighting continued Friday, and doctors in the main hospital in the rebel-held city of Misurata said that 10 people died and 20 were injured in rocket attacks from Gaddafi forces. One 4-year-old girl’s leg had to be amputated after a rocket struck her house, killing her two younger siblings, a doctor said.
In Brega, which is in government-controlled territory near the front lines of the conflict, the Libyan government said that a Friday morning NATO strike killed 11 Muslim religious leaders and wounded 45 at a guesthouse. It displayed gruesome photographs that it said were of the victims. It was impossible for journalists to verify the claim.
If true, it would be the largest civilian death toll during the NATO operation. NATO said it had struck a command-and-control center.
Birnbaum reported from Tripoli and Sheridan from Washington.