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NATO bombers punish Tripoli

TRIPOLI, Libya

Waves of NATO fighter planes hit the Libyan capital Tuesday with one of the largest bombardments of the city since the Western-led alliance began airstrikes almost three months ago.

Moammar Gadhafi responded swiftly with a vow that his people would never surrender.

Huge explosions rattled windows and nerves across Tripoli during the bombardment that lasted from late morning to early evening. Jets buzzed overhead, and plumes of dark gray smoke billowed into the sky. The Libyan government said 60 bombs fell on the city, killing 29 people. Reporters in Tripoli counted about 35 explosions.

President Barack Obama said that NATO had made significant progress during its campaign and that it was "just a matter of time" before Gadhafi was forced from power.

But Gadhafi phoned Libyan state television late in the afternoon to call his supporters onto the streets "in their millions" to show their defiance. "We will not surrender," he said. "We have only one choice, until the end: Victory or death, it doesn't matter."

After Gadhafi's four-minute address, cars sped past the Rixos Hotel where foreign journalists are staying, honking their horns and waving the green flags of the Libyan government. A few hundred people gathered outside Gadhafi's sprawling Bab al-Aziziyah headquarters complex, and a smaller crowd also assembled outside the Rixos, shouting slogans and firing rifles into the air.

"We are stronger than your missiles, stronger than your planes, and the voice of the Libyan people is louder than explosions," Gadhafi said, adding that he was ready to send 250,000 to 500,000 armed Libyans to cleanse the country of the rebels, whom he called "armed gangs" and "bastards."

Tuesday has been widely reported to be Gadhafi's 69th birthday, but neither government nor NATO officials seemed aware of the significance of the date.

The Libyan leader has mostly been in hiding since his son Saif al-Arab and three of his grandchildren were reportedly killed in a NATO airstrike in April. He was last glimpsed on state television in late May, when he met with visiting South African President Jacob Zuma.

NATO said it was hitting the epicenter of Gadhafi's military command-and-control facilities in Tripoli and warned that the bombing campaign would intensify.

The Libyan government said NATO had struck "military and semi-military" sites, including centers for the Popular Guard and the Revolutionary Guard, two militias responsible for internal security. Officials also showed journalists one building inside Bab al-Aziziyah that had been leveled; reporters spotted a body in the rubble.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said NATO leaders were "losing their heads" and complained that not a single representative from Britain, France, Italy or the United States has asked to visit Libya and talk to the government since the crisis began.

"No one has ever talked to us from the countries that are bombing us," he said. "Isn't that weird?"

Noting that Tuesday's assault came after a strike on an intelligence headquarters Monday, analysts said that NATO appears to be targeting the country's internal security apparatus, possibly in an effort to encourage Gadhafi's opponents to rise up in Tripoli. Although open dissent has been growing and some demonstrations have taken place in the capital in the past two weeks, a widespread uprising there still seems unlikely anytime soon.

"As the people of Tripoli break the fear factor, it is possible NATO is degrading the regime's ability to crack down on dissent," said Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Despite growing congressional reticence about U.S. military action in Libya, most Americans continue to support the country's participation in enforcing the Libya no-fly zone, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Fully 58 percent of respondents approve of the U.S. role in support of the NATO mission in Libya, a level that has changed little over the almost three months of bombing. Support also remains remarkably consistent across party lines, with about six in 10 Democrats, Republicans and independents alike in favor of the mission.

There is also, however, cross-party reluctance about increasing the scope of the U.S. military role in Libya, including broadening the mission to include attempting to remove Gadhafi from power.

NATO bombers punish Tripoli 06/07/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 8, 2011 12:29am]

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