Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has escaped a Nato missile strike in Tripoli, but one of his sons and three grandchildren under the age of 12 were killed, a government spokesman said.
The strike, which came hours after Gaddafi called for a cease-fire and negotiations in what rebels called a publicity stunt, marked an escalation of international efforts to prevent the Libyan regime from regaining momentum.
Rebels honked horns and chanted “Allahu Akbar” or “God is great” while speeding through the western city of Misrata, which Gaddafi’s forces have besieged and subjected to random shelling for two months, killing hundreds. Fireworks were set off in front of the central Hikma hospital, causing a brief panic that the light would draw fire from Gaddafi’s forces.
The attack struck the house of one of Gaddafi’s younger sons, Seif al-Arab, when the Libyan leader and his wife were inside. White House spokesman Shin Inouye declined to comment on the developments in Libya, referring questions to Nato.
The alliance acknowledged that it had struck a “command and control building in the Bab al-Aziziya neighbourhood” yesterday evening, but it could not confirm the death of Gaddafi’s son and insisted all its targets are military in nature and linked to Gaddafi’s systematic attacks on the population.
The commander of the Nato operation, Canadian Lt Gen Charles Bouchard, said he was aware of unconfirmed reports that some Gaddafi family members may have been killed and he regretted “all loss of life, especially the innocent civilians being harmed as a result of the ongoing conflict”.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a Gaddafi ally, condemned the deadly strike, calling foreign military intervention in Libya “madness.” He said he believes “they order they’ve given is to kill Gaddafi”.
Seif al-Arab Gaddafi, 29, was one of the youngest of Gaddafi’s seven sons and brother of the better-known Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, who had been touted as a reformist before the uprising began in mid-February. The younger Gaddafi had spent much of his time in Germany in recent years.
Gaddafi’s children had been increasingly engaged in covering up scandals fit for a soap opera, including negative publicity from extravagant displays of wealth such as a million-dollar private concert by pop diva Beyonce, according to a batch of diplomatic cables released by the secret-spilling WikiLeaks website.
But Seif al-Arab remained largely in the shadows, although he had a penchant for fast cars and partying when outside Libya.
Muammar Gaddafi and his wife were in the Tripoli house of his 29-year-old son when it was hit by at least one bomb dropped from a Nato warplane, according to Libyan spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
“The leader himself is in good health,” Mr Ibrahim said. “He was not harmed. The wife is also in good health.”
Mr Ibrahim would not give the names of the three children killed, except to say they were nieces and nephews of Seif al-Arab and that they were younger than 12. He said they are not releasing the names yet to protect the privacy of the family.
He said the compound that was hit was in the Garghour neighbourhood.
“It seems there was intelligence that was leaked. They knew about something. They expected him for some reason. But the target was very clear, very, very clear. And the neighbourhood, yes of course, because the leader family has a place there, you could expect of course it would be guarded, but it is a normal neighbourhood. Normal Libyans live there,” he said.
Nato warplanes have been carrying out airstrikes in Libya for the past month as part of a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians. Yesterday’s strike marked the first time Gaddafi’s family was being targeted directly.
Armed rebels have been battling Gaddafi loyalists for more than two months in an attempt to oust Libya’s ruler of nearly 42 years. Standing outside an improvised triage unit in a tent in the parking lot in the besieged city of Misrata, rebel fighter Abdel-Aziz Bilhaj, 22, welcomed the attack, saying it would make Gaddafi think twice about how he dealt with his people.
“It could make him more willing to back down on certain parts of his plan,” Mr Bilhaj said.
Medic Abdel-Moneim Ibsheir considered the strike a form of justice.
“Gaddafi was not far away, meaning he’s not safe,” he said as occasional explosions could be heard throughout the embattled city. “It’s just like our children getting hit here. Now his children are getting hit there.”
Eleven dead had reached the hospital morgue by midnight, including two brothers, aged 11 and 16. Two more had arrived by 1.30am, and four more at another hospital.
On Tuesday, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at the Pentagon that Nato planes were not targeting Gaddafi specifically but would continue to attack his command centres.
Journalists taken to the walled complex of one-story buildings in a residential Tripoli neighbourhood saw heavy bomb damage. The blast had torn down the ceiling of one building and left a huge pile of rubble and twisted metal on the ground.
Libyans called in to a late-night television talk show to proclaim Seif al-Arab a martyr. A live shot from Gaddafi’s compound Bab al-Aziziya showed dozens dancing, chanting pro-Gaddafi slogans, waving green flags and clapping in unison.
The government spokesman said the airstrike was an attempt to “assassinate the leader of this country,” which he said violated international law.
Heavy bursts of gunfire were heard in Tripoli after the attack.
Gaddafi had seven sons and one daughter. The Libyan leader also had an adopted daughter who was killed in a 1986 US airstrike on his Bab al-Aziziya residential compound, which was retaliation for the bombing attack on a German disco in which two US servicemen were killed. The US at the time blamed Libya for the disco blast.
Seif’s mother is Safiya Farkash, Gaddafi’s second wife and a former nurse.
The fatal airstrike came just hours after Gaddafi called for a mutual ceasefire and negotiations with Nato powers to end a six-week bombing campaign.