In this photo from a tour organized by the Libyan government, officials… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Benghazi, Libya, and Washington — A NATO airstrike that the Libyan government says narrowly missed Moammar Kadafi 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 Kadafi 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 Kadafi 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 Kadafi specifically in the attack, which Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said killed Kadafi's sixth son, Seif al Arab Kadafi, and three grandchildren.
Kadafi 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 Kadafi's eight children — seven sons and a daughter. He did not maintain the high profile of some of Kadafi's other offspring, especially his elder brothers Saadi and Seif 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 Kadafi 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. Kadafi retains control of much of western Libya, including Tripoli.
Although NATO and U.S. officials rebuff suggestions that there is any effort to assassinate Kadafi, 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 Kadafi was in the building when it was attacked.
He said the alliance had not confirmed that members of Kadafi'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 Kadafi'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 Kadafi'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.