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U.S., French, British forces expand Libya bombing campaign

Smoke billows from Moammar Kadafi's massive residential compound in Tripoli. The U.S. scoffs at Libyan cease-fire announcement.

March 20, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Brian Bennett and Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • People mill around near Moammar Kadafi's residence after a missile destroyed an administrative building in the Libyan leader's complex in Tripoli.
People mill around near Moammar Kadafi's residence after a missile… (Imed Lamloum / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Washington and Cairo — U.S., French and British forces blasted Libyan air defenses and ground forces, drawing intense volleys of tracer and antiaircraft fire over Tripoli on Sunday on the second day of a military campaign that will severely test Moammar Kadafi's powers of survival.

Late Sunday, smoke billowed from Kadafi's massive Bab Azizia residential compound shortly after an earth-shaking explosion. Rounds of antiaircraft and tracer fire lit up the night for the third time in less than 24 hours.

Immediately afterward, the streets of the capital erupted with car horns and chanting and celebratory gunfire in a show of support for Kadafi, whose armed loyalists retain a tight grip on the streets.

Photos: U.S., allies launch attacks in Libya

A Libyan military official announced a 9 p.m. cease-fire by the country's armed forces, but U.S. officials scoffed at the declaration.

"Our view at this point is that it isn't true or it's been immediately violated," said national security advisor Tom Donilon, briefing reporters in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday night. "So we'll continue to monitor Kadafi's actions, not just his words."

After focusing on air defenses in the first hours of the campaign, U.S. and coalition forces expanded their strikes to include attacks on Libyan ground forces that threaten civilians or are able to shoot down planes enforcing a no-fly zone, a senior U.S. military official said.

The assault cheered the rebels, who had seized control of large areas of the country as they sought to build on months of discontent across the Arab world but in recent days found themselves retreating in the face of Kadafi's superior firepower.

Kadafi declared he was willing to die defending Libya and, in a statement broadcast hours after the attacks began, condemned what he called "flagrant military aggression." He vowed to strike civilian and military targets in the Mediterranean.

On Sunday morning, Kadafi returned to state television airwaves, vowing, "We will win the battle," and "oil will not be left to the USA, France and Britain."

"You are transgressors, you are aggressors, you are beasts, you are criminals," Kadafi said. "Your people are against you, there are demonstrations everywhere in Europe and the U.S. against this aggression on the innocent Libyan people. The people are with us. Even your people are with us."

Government spokesman Mousa Ibrahim told reporters that 48 people were killed by the allies' strikes and 150 others were wounded near targets in Tripoli, Tajoura, the Kadafi stronghold of Surt, rebel-held Misurata and the eastern town of Zuwara.

"If Libya goes down, the whole Mediterranean shall go down, the whole of Africa, the north of Africa," Ibrahim said. "We are arming our people, men and women. We will not allow Libya to be lost like Palestine, like Iraq, like Somalia, like Afghanistan."

Authorities took journalists to what they described as Tripoli's seaside "martyrs" cemetery in attempt to substantiate official claims of the dead and injured.

Journalists were met with the anger of hundreds of protesters screaming anti-American slogans and chanting boisterously in support of Kadafi. Regime supporters, most of them from the neighborhoods of Tripoli that are political strongholds of Kadafi, flooded the cemetery grounds for the mass funeral, which was broadcast live on state television.

"There is no God but God and the martyr is the beloved of God," they chanted.

But the visiting international journalists said they found few of the ordinary characteristics of Middle East funerals, including politically charged ceremonies for those who died in battle. No burial processions were seen. There were no portraits of the martyrs, and no grieving mothers lying beside the tombs of their loved ones.

Instead, journalists were pummeled with contradictory stories about the dead by sometimes stone-faced men claiming to be relatives of the deceased. There were more than two dozen open graves, but only one body, wrapped in a white Islamic shroud and described as a young man named Ramadan Ashegani, could be seen placed into the dry earth.

Both Kadafi and his international foes, who began their campaign less than two days after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding Libyan forces pull back from rebel-held areas, positioned themselves for an endgame that focused on whether the longtime leader would remain in power.

U.S. officials acknowledged that they were seeking to oust Kadafi but also that they did not have a clear path to do so.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, said the objective of the military campaign was "limited" to protecting civilians and might not result in Kadafi relinquishing power. Kadafi remaining in Libya is "certainly potentially one outcome," Mullen said, noting that the U.N. resolution "isn't about seeing him go."

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