Nato warplanes have bombarded targets in Tripoli with more than 20 air strikes around Muammar Gaddafi’s residential compound early today, in what appeared to be the heaviest night of bombing in the Libyan capital since the Western alliance launched its air campaign against his forces.
The rapid string of strikes, all within less than half an hour, set off thunderous booms that rattled windows and sent heavy plumes of smoke over the city, including from an area close to Gaddafi’s sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said at least three people were killed and dozens wounded in Nato strikes that targeted what he described as buildings used by volunteer units of the Libyan army.
Nato said a number of the strikes hit a vehicle storage facility next to Bab al-Aziziya that had been used in supplying regime forces “conducting attacks on civilians”.
It was not immediately clear if the facility was the only target hit in the barrage. Bab al-Azizya, which includes a number of military facilities, has been pounded repeatedly by Nato strikes.
As jets flew low over the city during the night, anti-aircraft fire crackled in response. People could be heard screaming and shouting outside a hotel where journalists were staying. Pro-Gaddafi loyalists sounded car horns and fired guns, shouting their support for the Libyan leader.
Observers described the bombing as the heaviest attack on the Libyan capital since Nato began its air campaign on March 19 after the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution to protect civilians after Gaddafi responded to the public uprising against his rule by unleashing his military and his militias.
Nato has been escalating and widening the scope of its strikes over the past weeks, increasing the pressure on Gaddafi, while the alliance’s members have built closer ties with the rebel movement that has control of the eastern half of Libya.
Yesterday, the highest-ranking US diplomat in the Middle East was in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya in a show of support.
Despite Nato bombing runs, the rebels have not been able to break Gaddafi’s grip on the west of the country, including Tripoli.
In a significant new deployment of firepower, France and Britain are bringing attack helicopters to use in the strikes in Libya as soon as possible, French defence minister Gerard Longuet said yesterday.
The use of attack helicopters would appear to mark a new strategy for Nato, which has relied on strikes by fighter planes and seen that result in a stalemate on the ground as Gaddafi forces adapted, often turning to urban fighting to make such strikes more difficult.
Nimble, low-flying helicopters have much more leeway to pick targets with precision than high-flying jets, but they are also much more vulnerable to ground fire. The alliance has had no military deaths since it first started enforcing a no-fly zone on March 31.
Mr Longuet said the helicopters would be used to target military equipment such as Libyan tanker and ammunition trucks in crowded urban areas while causing fewer civilian casualties. He said France would essentially use Gazelle helicopters, which have been around for some 40 years, but can calso use the Tigre, a modern helicopter gunship.
A US State Department statement called the visit by Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs, “another signal of the US’ support” for the rebels’ National Transitional Council, which it called “a legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people”.
Several countries, including France and Italy, have recognised the NTC, while the US, Britain and others have established a diplomatic presence in Benghazi.
Mr Feltman plans to meet council head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and others before departing today. The visit follows the opening of a European Union office on Sunday by that body’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton, who said she looked forward to a better Libya “where Gaddafi will not be in the picture”.
Rebel leaders welcome the diplomatic contact, but say only better weapons will help them defeat Gaddafi.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said the Libyan war could drag on through the end of the year and it would need another €38m if that happened.
The ICRC’s deputy head of operations for North and West Africa, Georgios Georgantas, said ICRC expected 850,000 people would need its help there by the end of 2011. It has 95 staff in Libya to fulfil its mission of helping people caught up in violence.
He said “the conflict could go on until the end of the year” but the humanitarian crisis was growing, and “we have to be prepared for the worst”.
Rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said the country faced a “major humanitarian disaster” in its western Nafusa mountains, where residents say government troops have been cutting supply lines to communities. Rebels say about 225,000 people live in the area.
“They are more or less boiling the leaves of trees” to survive, Mr Ghoga said.
And Col Jumaa Ibrahim, who defected from Gaddafi’s forces and is now a member of the mountain military council, said two villages, Galaa and Yefren, were being bombed every day and faced critical shortages.