In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, a man consoles an injured Libyan rebel… (Saeed Khan / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Cairo — The embattled regime of Libya's Moammar Kadafi suffered a series of new blows Thursday as NATO jets hit his compound in Tripoli, Western warships thwarted an apparent seaborne attack on the rebel-held city of Misurata and an Italian official said an arrest warrant for the Libyan leader was imminent.
News services reported that NATO warplanes struck Kadafi's fortified complex and several other sites in the capital, the second aerial bombardment of Tripoli in a 48-hour period. Reports from the scene indicated that the target could have been an underground bunker.
A North Atlantic Treaty Organization official said the site was a "disguised" command center for the Libyan military, one of a number of such facilities that Kadafi has tried to conceal amid a punishing aerial assault.
"He's forced to hide whatever remains of his severely damaged command-and-control network," said the NATO official, who could not be named under alliance guidelines.
The strikes in Tripoli came after Kadafi appeared on state television for the first time in almost two weeks.
Kadafi's televised appearance with tribal leaders in Tripoli seemed designed to confirm that Libya's leader for the last four decades is still alive despite the acceleration in bombing attacks. Libyan authorities say an April 30 missile strike in Tripoli hit a home where Kadafi was present, killing a son and three grandchildren, though Kadafi was not injured.
NATO says it is not trying to kill Kadafi but is targeting his command-and-control apparatus. The NATO strikes stem from a United Nations mandate to protect civilians in Libya, where an uprising against the longtime ruler is entering its third month.
Even as its jets strike daily, NATO has been mounting a sea campaign to enforce an arms embargo against Kadafi's regime.
Early Thursday, NATO said, its warships thwarted an attempt by fast Zodiac-type boats to enter Misurata's harbor. The small boats "were forced to abandon their attack," NATO said in a statement. Libyan rebels also have been pushing back Kadafi's forces in the city in recent days.
Regime forces on shore fired artillery and antiaircraft weapons at the allied warships, which returned fire, NATO said. None of its ships were damaged and no injuries were reported, the alliance said.
The incident comes two weeks after NATO accused the government of laying mines in Misurata's harbor, the city's only lifeline during a nearly two-month siege by government forces. Whether the boats spotted Thursday were also planning to lay mines was not known, a NATO official said.
Rebel advances in Misurata have opened up the port for renewed deliveries of humanitarian aid and other supplies, officials said, bringing some relief to a city that has come to epitomize resistance to Kadafi's rule. Rebels seized control of Misurata's airport this week in a step hailed as a major opposition triumph after weeks of street fighting in Libya's third-most-populous city.
But it was unclear how much further the opposition could push out from the enclave of Misurata against Kadafi's superior forces on the city's eastern and western edges. Experts have also not ruled out the possibility of a government counterattack on Misurata, the only western coastal city that remains in rebel hands.
Nonetheless, the rebel advances in Misurata, combined with the aerial strikes in the capital, have been seized on by the opposition as a sign that Kadafi's regime is tottering under mounting pressure.
There have also been widely reported accounts of unrest in Tripoli, where the embargo against Kadafi's regime has led to fuel and food shortages. The opposition has also alleged escalating defections and desertions from Kadafi's ranks, though the reports remain unconfirmed.
In Rome, the Associated Press reported that Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Thursday that he expected the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Kadafi by the end of the month. That development could heighten pressure on Kadafi to abandon Libya with some kind of a deal in place to avoid prosecution, one potential scenario that observers say could end the fighting. The Libyan leader, however, has vowed to fight to the end.
The opposition to Kadafi also picked up new international support as Britain pledged additional nonlethal aid to the rebel cause, and President Obama invited a rebel delegation to the White House on Friday. The rebels have named a "transitional" government based in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
Almost three months after many Libyans rose up against Kadafi, the rebels now rule much of the eastern half of the vast, oil-rich nation, while the regime retains control of Tripoli and most of western Libya.
Times staff writer Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.