BENGHAZI, Libya — A NATO airstrike that the Libyan government says narrowly missed Moammar Gadhafi but killed one of his sons and three grandchildren has raised anew the specter of whether the Western alliance is trying to assassinate the Libyan leader.
NATO has said its airstrikes focus on command-and-control centers that the Tripoli government uses in its attempt to suppress rebels fighting to end four decades of Gadhafi rule. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mission is to protect civilians that have come under assault during the fighting.
Saturday’s strike in the Libyan capital occurred only days after NATO and Obama administration officials signaled they would be stepping up attacks on facilities known to be used by Gadhafi and members of his inner circle to coordinate their attacks. It also comes shortly after the United States began flying armed Predator drones over Libya.
NATO officials firmly denied that they were trying to hit Gadhafi specifically in the attack, which Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said killed Gadhafi’s sixth son, Seif al-Arab Kadafi, and three grandchildren.
Gadhafi and his wife were in the residence at the time of the strike but both survived the bombing, Ibrahim said on state television.
“The leader himself is in good health,” Ibrahim said. “He was not harmed. The wife is also in good health.”
The dead son identified by Ibrahim was among the least known of Gadhafi’s eight children — seven sons and a daughter. He did not maintain the high profile of some of Gadhafi’s other offspring, especially his elder brothers Saadi and Seif al-Islam. He was described on state television as a student in Germany.
“Western-nation crusader aggression against the Libyan nation continued and proved again that it has no moral foundation, no legal foundation and no political foundation,” Ibrahim told his television audience. “The leader with his wife was there in the house, with other friends and relatives.”
In a statement, the Canadian commander of the NATO operation in Libya said the alliance had attacked “a known command-and-control building” in Libya.
NATO “plans and conducts its strikes with great deliberation to minimize the risk to innocent people,” Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard said.
A senior NATO officer flatly denied that the strike was an attempt to kill Gadhafi or members of his family.
“We have never targeted individuals. It’s not in our mandate,” he said. “We hit a building known to be a command-and-control facility involved in coordinating attacks on civilians.”
There also appeared to be conflicting versions as to the exact location of the strike.
NATO officials said a compound in an area of Tripoli called Bab Azizia, which has been bombed previously, was the target. Libyan officials, meanwhile, took journalists to a destroyed house in a different, wealthy residential area of Tripoli, Reuters news agency reported. At least three missiles hit that house.
State television showed scenes of heavy damage to a structure. Webs of reinforcing metal were seen hanging inside the damaged building, poking through chunks of concrete.
Journalists and others were seen walking through the rubble and, at one point, handling what appeared to be a missile half-covered in dust and debris.
NATO airstrikes have been aiding Libyan rebels who have seized large chunks of Libyan territory on several fronts, including much of the nation’s eastern coastal zone. Gadhafi retains control of much of western Libya, including Tripoli.
Although NATO and U.S. officials rebuff suggestions that there is any effort to assassinate Gadhafi, the Libyan government’s assertion that he was in the targeted house could feed speculation that NATO may have had information about the leader’s whereabouts.
The NATO officer would not discuss the intelligence that led to the attack or whether the alliance knew Gadhafi was in the building when it was attacked.
He said the alliance had not confirmed that members of Gadhafi’s family had been killed, other than through news reports, because NATO has no personnel on the ground.
But he did not deny that members of Gadhafi’s family might have been killed, and suggested that the Libyan leader may have surrounded himself with members of his family even as he was communicating with his military forces.
“If Kadafi had people in the building he was using to conduct command and control, we have no way of knowing they were there,” said the officer, who also refused to disclose what type of aircraft was used in the attack.
The assertion by NATO that the facility was involved in coordinating Gadhafi’s military attacks is an important one because, if true, it would make the compound a legitimate military target.
But the possibility that the strike had killed civilians could deepen splits within the alliance and at the United Nations about the goals of the air campaign.
Turkey, Germany and several other alliance members are deeply worried that NATO is moving toward a war aimed at overthrowing the Gadhafi government, a goal that they insist was not authorized by the U.N. resolution allowing military action to protect civilians in Libya.
Confirmation of the deaths of Gadhafi’s family members could also deepen questions about NATO’s tactics. The decision to step up targeting of Gadhafi’s command facilities came after alliance airstrikes had failed over more than a month to halt shelling of the city of Misrata and other opposition-held areas by Gadhafi forces.
The NATO officer insisted that the alliance was seeking to minimize the threat to civilians from its attacks and defended the choice of target.
“Every target we attack is evaluated to make sure we do the minimum damage to civilians,” the NATO officer said. “We know to a great extent how the chain of command worked and how they are controlling their attacks on innocent civilians. This compound we attacked is a building that is involved in the command and control of attacks on civilians.”
The Libyan government, meanwhile, insists that the strikes on Tripoli are assassination attempts that violate international law.
In the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east, celebratory gunshots erupted when word of the younger Gadhafi’s death was reported. Overjoyed men fired bursts of automatic weapons and set off explosives. Tracer fire filled the night sky.
Some rebel officials publicly expressed doubt about the authenticity of the report, saying it could have been broadcast to generate sympathy and raise new doubts about the NATO strikes. One spokesman told Al-Jazeera satellite network that, if the report is true, Moammar Gadhafi was responsible for the deaths through his actions.
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Gadhafi earlier had called on NATO to agree to a cease-fire, using language that seemed more conciliatory than some of his earlier appeals. But NATO and rebel officials rejected his request and demanded that he stop attacks on civilians.
“Negotiate with us and we’ll negotiate with you,” Gadhafi said in a rambling address early Saturday. “You are the aggressors. Why are you attacking us? Why are you killing our children?”
In 1986, a U.S. airstrike on Gadhafi’s compound killed his adopted daughter. The attack by the Reagan administration was in response to a bombing at a German discotheque that left two U.S. servicemen dead. American officials blamed Libya for the disco bombing.
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Benghazi and Cloud of the Tribune Washington bureau from Washington.
The Associated Press