TRIPOLI – Moamer Kadhafi’s Tripoli compound was rocked by blasts late Monday, his southern strongholds targeted and a navy base bombed as international criticism mounted over the air assault on Libya.
Rebels, meanwhile, said they were under intense attack by Kadhafi’s forces in the city of Misrata near Tripoli and an AFP reporter saw them beaten back from a frail attempt to retake the eastern key town of Ajdabiya.
In Cairo, the Arab League on Monday reaffirmed its support for Operation Odyssey Dawn after the previous day saying the air strikes led by the United States, France and Britain went beyond the scope of a UN resolution to implement a no-fly zone.
The operation was launched on Saturday to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973 aimed at stopping Kadhafi’s forces harming civilians as they battle a month-long uprising.
And as divisions over the air strikes emerged in NATO, the United States said the ultimate goal of the operation is the departure of Kadhafi.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, however, said there was no legal authority for regime change in Libya.
State television said the capital Tripoli came under attack after dark. Loud explosions and anti-aircraft fire ripped across the night sky near Kadhafi’s residence at around 1900 GMT, an AFP reporter said.
Similar explosions rocked the capital on Sunday night, with coalition officials on Monday saying an administrative building in Kadhafi’s fortified complex had been destroyed by a cruise missile.
Witnesses said a Libyan navy base some 10 kilometres (six miles) east of the capital was also bombarded late on Monday.
They said the Bussetta base was hit at 1900 GMT.
A Libyan government spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, told a Tripoli news conference coalition warplanes on Monday targeted the southern town of Sebha, bastion of Kadhafi’s Guededfa tribe. He did not indicate if any damage or casualties had resulted.
Ibrahim also claimed that Misrata, Libya’s third city 214 kilometres (132 miles) east of Tripoli, was “liberated three days ago” and that Kadhafi’s forces were hunting “terrorist elements.”
But a rebel spokesman reached by telephone in Misrata insisted the insurgents remained in control despite an onslaught by Kadhafi loyalists, who he said opened fire with tanks and set snipers on roofs to gun down people in the streets.
A medic in Misrata, speaking by telephone against a background of gunfire, confirmed a death toll of 40 and said at least 300 people had been wounded.
“Casualties fell in their dozens,” after snipers and a tank “fired on demonstrators,” the rebel spokesman said.
The Libyan’s strongman’s troops had not yet taken Misrata, but “have taken up position along the main road where they have deployed three tanks, as well as positioning snipers on rooftops,” the rebel spokesman said.
Kadhafi’s troops retreated 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the insurgents’ capital of Benghazi after fierce strafing by coalition aircraft destroyed much of their armour, but beat off a rebel advance on their new positions in Ajdabiya on Monday.
As rebels who massed in their hundreds outside Ajdabiya advanced towards their position, the government troops opened fire with artillery and remaining tanks, scattering the insurgents.
General Carter Ham, head of the US Africa Command, said that US forces had no mission to support a ground offensive by the rebels, but at the same time Kadhafi’s troops in the Benghazi area show “little will or capability to resume offensive operations.”
The United States and France denied coalition forces would target Kadhafi, whose whereabouts were unknown on Monday, as did the head of Britain’s armed forces after Foreign Secretary William Hague had refused to rule it out.
But Washington made it clear that they wanted Kadhafi out.
“We’re trying to convince Colonel Kadhafi and his regime, and his associates, that they need to step down from power,” said state department spokesman Mark Toner. “That remains our ultimate goal here.”
NATO struggled on Monday to overcome divisions about a role in the military operation in Libya, as France resisted pressure to let the alliance take over and Turkey criticised the bombing campaign.
As more nations joined the Western coalition pounding Kadhafi’s forces, NATO was still debating whether, and in what form, the Western military organisation should join the UN-mandated intervention.
NATO members France, Britain and the United States have acted as individual nations in the air and sea campaign against Kadhafi’s regime, with US military officers coordinating operations from bases in Germany and Italy.
But London, Rome and several other alliance members favour moving to a centralised NATO command, with Norway even saying its six fighter jets would stay grounded as long as it was unclear who was running the operations.
“It shouldn’t be a war on Libya,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, while Bulgaria labelled military intervention an “adventure” driven by oil interests.
Germany, which abstained on Resolution 1973, said the action in Libya justified Berlin’s decision not to take part.
A UN diplomat said in New York the UN Security Council will meet on Thursday and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would address it.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, meanwhile, expressed full support on Monday for Resolution 1973, saying comments the previous day that the air strikes exceeded the UN mandate had been “misinterpreted.”
“We are committed to the UNSC Resolution 1973, we have no objection to this decision, particularly as it does not call for an invasion of Libyan territory,” he said after meeting Ban in Cairo.
Ban appealed for unity over implementing Resolution 1973.
“It is important that the international community speak with one voice to implement the second council resolution,” he said, adding that “strong and decisive measures” had been possible only because of Arab League support for a no-fly zone.
Belgian and Spanish warplanes began patrolling Libyan skies on Monday, Danish and French aircraft launched new missions, Italy helped to suppress air defences and Norwegian fighters left for Italian bases, respective official sources said.
British Typhoon fighter jets Monday took part in their first ever combat mission as they assisted in enforcing the no-fly zone, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff’s spokesman, Major General John Lorimer, said in a statement.
Kadhafi on Sunday promised “a long, drawn-out war with no limits” in a speech broadcast on state television but without appearing on camera, and Ham said on Monday Washington knew little about his whereabouts.