NATO warplanes struck Tripoli early Tuesday in the heaviest bombing of the Libyan capital in weeks, while rebels claimed gains amid an uptick of fighting on a long—deadlocked front line in the country’s east.
NATO struck at least four sites in Tripoli, setting off crackling explosions that thundered through the city overnight. One strike hit a building that locals said was used by a military intelligence agency. Another targeted a government building that officials said was sometimes used by parliament members.
It was not immediately clear what the other two strikes hit, but one of them sent plumes of smoke that appeared to come from the sprawling compound housing members of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s family.
Between explosions, an aircraft dropped burning flares. Some residents responded by raking the sky with gunfire and beeping their horns.
The two sides have been locked in a standoff, with the rebels controlling most of eastern Libya, and Col. Qadhafi most of the west, including the capital, Tripoli. Exceptions in the west include pockets of embattled rebel—held towns along the border with Tunisia, and Misrata on the coast.
The intensified air campaign comes as NATO has faced criticism for not doing enough to break Col. Qadhafi’s grip.
“We have succeeded in taking out a significant part of Col. Qadhafi’s military, we have significantly degraded his war machine,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Monday during a visit to Atlanta. “So far our operation has been a success but there’s still work to do.”
NATO said its warplanes on Sunday targeted three command and control centers near Tripoli. Fifteen ammunition stores were hit in the vicinity of Mizdah, as were one tank and a command center near Misrata.
But a NATO official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the alliance could not comment immediately on Tuesday’s strikes in Tripoli but hoped to say something at a news conference later in the day.
In Tripoli, government escorts did not allow reporters near the site of one building that was hit in the NATO air attack early Tuesday. Local residents said the building, which had buckled from the bombing, was used by a military intelligence agency.
Reporters, who may not leave their Tripoli hotel without government escorts, were shown damage done to a nearby hospital. A physician, Dr. Mustafa Rahim, said one child was badly injured, though but would not allow reporters to see him, saying the four—year—old boy was in intensive care.
Another strike targeted a building - struck once previously - that two employees said was used by parliament members and housed a library for research into Col. Qadhafi’s writings.
The handsome pastel—coloured building, built by Italians when they ruled Libya in the 1920s, once served as Italy’s naval headquarters and was considered an iconic Tripoli site.
The Tripoli bombing came just hours after heavy fighting was reported on Monday on the eastern front, south of Ajdabiya, a rebel—held town about 90 miles (150 kilometers) south of Benghazi, the rebel headquarters in the east.
At a checkpoint outside Ajdabiya on Monday afternoon, an AP photographer counted about 100 pickup trucks coming back from the front, each carrying four or five rebel fighters, many firing their weapons into the air, shouting and dancing.
Rebel commander Zakaria al—Mismari told reporters that Col. Qadhafi forces had advanced on their positions with about a dozen vehicles before dawn Monday. “By God’s grace we managed to defeat them and outflank them, and we attacked 12 of their vehicles,” he said.
Doctors at Ajdabiya hospital told the AP that ambulances had brought the bodies of four rebel fighters.
The rebels said they had retreated because they were told NATO was launching airstrikes against Col. Qadhafi's forces there, and planes were heard from Ajdabiya later Monday.
The rebels were deliberately vague about where the front is, some saying the fighting had taken place 12 to 25 miles (20 to 40 kilometers) from Ajdabiya, others placing it nearer to the oil town of Brega. The location could not be independently confirmed because journalists were not allowed past a checkpoint south of Ajdabiya to which the rebels had retreated.
The rebel army has been bogged down for weeks near Ajdabiya, unable to move on to Brega, which has an oil terminal and Libya’s second—largest hydrocarbon complex.
The rebels say their weapons cannot reach more than about 12 miles (20 kilometers) while Col. Qadhafi’s forces can fire rockets and shells up to twice that distance. Rebel pleas for heavier arms from abroad have received no response.
Also on Monday, Col. Qadhafi’s forces shelled a northern Misrata neighborhood where many families from the besieged city center have fled to, said Abdel Salam, who identified himself as a resident—turned—fighter. He said NATO airstrikes hit targets on the city’s southern edges, an area where government forces have been concentrated.
The fighting was threatening the port area, the city’s only lifeline, preventing some aid ships from docking, Mr. Abdel Salam said. A ship carrying medical supplies and baby food was able to dock in Misrata on Monday, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
It was the first ship to arrive since Wednesday, when Col. Qadhafi’s forces fired a barrage of rockets into the port as the International Organization of Migration was evacuating nearly 1,000 people. The ICRC said it would use the chartered ship as a floating platform as its team works to reduce the danger of unexploded weapons on the streets of Misrata, visit prisoners detained by the rebels and help reunite families.
The U.N. refugee agency, meanwhile, appealed to European countries to step up efforts to rescue people fleeing Libya in overloaded boats.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Melissa Fleming, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that “any boat that is leaving Libya should be considered, at first glance, as a boat in need of assistance.”
Ms. Fleming said a senior Somali diplomat in Tripoli told the agency that 16 bodies including those of two babies have so far been retrieved from a boat carrying 600 people that sank just outside the Libyan capital on Friday.