Heaviest NATO air strikes rock Tripoli

TRIPOLI, May 24, 2011 (AFP) - Powerful explosions rocked Tripoli Tuesday as NATO launched its heaviest bombardment yet of the capital, while France and Britain piled pressure on Moamer Kadhafi by bringing attack helicopters into the Libya fray.

AFP - Medics wheel a Libyan man at the al-Zawiya hospital in Tripoli on May 24, 2011

Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters that at least three people died and 150 were wounded in the air strikes, which he said targeted a deserted military barracks but which instead hit civilians living nearby.

An AFP journalist said the raids lasting more than half an hour began at around 1:00 am when powerful blasts were heard in the sector around Kadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya residence.

More than 15 strong blasts were heard in the neighbourhood, with the sound of warplanes roaring overhead.

NATO rejected the claim that the strikes had targeted a barracks and said a vehicle storage facility had been struck.

"Overnight a regime vehicle storage facility adjacent to the Bab al-Aziziyah complex in Tripoli was struck by NATO aircraft using a number of precision guided weapons," said the NATO operation's commander Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard in a statement on Tuesday.

"This facility is known to have been active during the initial regime suppression of the population in February 2011 and has remained so ever since; resupplying the regime forces that have been conducting attacks against innocent civilians."

In another boost to forces fighting to oust the Libyan strongman, France said it would provide attack helicopters for NATO's air campaign along with Britain, and the EU widened sanctions against Kadhafi's forces.

The helicopters, a weapon that has yet to be used by NATO in Libya, will help the Western alliance strike regime military assets hidden in urban areas while avoiding civilian casualties, French ministers said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, on the sidelines of meetings of European Union foreign and defence ministers in Brussels, said Paris was deploying Tigre and Gazelle class helicopters aboard an aircraft carrier.

French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said separately that London would deploy helicopters aboard its HMS Ocean aircraft carrier as soon as possible.

On Monday, Washington urged Kadhafi to leave Libya as its most senior envoy to date held talks in the rebel capital Benghazi.

"The United States remains committed to protecting Libyan civilians and believes that Kadhafi must leave power and Libya," said the US representative's office to the rebels' National Transitional Council.

Washington's call came a day after the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, opened an EU office in Benghazi and declared the 27-member bloc's "long-term support" to the rebels.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman was in Benghazi for talks with the rebel leadership in a three-day visit that the US office called "another signal of the US's support for the NTC, a legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people."

Britain, France, Gambia, Italy and Qatar have already recognised the rebel council as their sole interlocutor in Libya.

The EU tightened the screws on Kadhafi.

An EU assets freeze and travel ban against Kadhafi loyalists and firms suspected of propping up the regime was extended to a member of the Libyan leader's inner circle and a Libyan airline, an EU diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.

In another bonus for the rebels, EU ministers termed the NTC "a key political interlocutor representing the aspirations of the Libyan people."

In Moscow, a rebel negotiator told Russia after meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Benghazi would never negotiate with Kadhafi and viewed the West's current military intervention as fair.

Russia abstained from the UN Security Council resolution on Libya in March that essentially authorised military action.

But the Kremlin has since accused the West of exceeding the UN mandate and becoming entangled in a full-blown military operation in Libya.

On the ground, there was little movement in the battle lines.

Rebel military spokesman Ahmed Omar Bani said the frontline between the rebel-held east and the mainly government-held west remained between the strategic crossroads town of Ajdabiya and the oil refinery town of Brega.

Bani said rebel fighters who earlier this month broke the loyalist siege of Libya's third-largest city Misrata -- the rebels' most significant bastion in the west -- had pushed on towards Zliten, the next town along the coastal road towards Tripoli.

Other news