NATO said Friday its warplanes hit eight vessels of Moamer Kadhafi’s navy, after US President Barack Obama predicted the veteran Libyan strongman would “inevitably” leave or be forced from power.
The authorities in Tripoli slammed the US president’s comments as “delusional,” while strongly denying reports that Kadhafi’s wife and daughter had fled to Tunisia and that Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem had defected.
“NATO and coalition air assets continued their precision air strikes against pro-Kadhafi regime forces overnight with a coordinated strike against pro-Kadhafi forces in the ports of Tripoli, Al-Khums and Sirte,” the Western alliance said.
“Overnight, NATO aircraft hit pro-Kadhafi warships, striking eight vessels,” it added.
“Given the escalating use of naval assets, NATO had no choice but to take decisive action to protect the civilian population of Libya and NATO forces at sea,” said Rear Admiral Russell Harding, deputy commander of the NATO-led air war.
Fresh explosions were heard in the Libyan capital early Friday, hours after the air strikes targeted the city’s port, with a ship still ablaze from the raid.
Harding insisted that all of the targets hit were military but Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim accused the Western alliance of seeking to scare international shipping firms into steering clear of government-held ports.
“Whatever the ship that has been hit, it is clearly a message sent by NATO to the international maritime companies not to send any more vessels to Libya,” Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli.
The spokesman described as “delusional” Obama’s prediction in a keynote speech on US Middle East policy on Thursday of the veteran Libyan leader’s inevitable demise.
“Obama is still delusional — he believes the lies that his own government and own media spread around the world,” Ibrahim said.
“It’s not Obama who decides whether Moamer Kadhafi leaves Libya or not. It’s the Libyan people who decide their future,” he added.
In a major speech responding to the protest movements sweeping the Arab world, Obama said: “Time is working against Kadhafi.
“He does not have control over his country. The opposition has organised a legitimate and credible interim council,” Obama said of the rebels’ National Transitional Council based in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
“And when Kadhafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.”
Obama’s remarks were welcomed by the vice chairman of the rebel administration, Abdul Hafiz Ghoga.
“We welcome the statements made regarding the legitimacy of the body of the National Transitional Council,” Ghoga said in Benghazi.
“We look forward to further support from the United States and the international community to help us further develop our democratic aspirations and for the development of our people.”
Renewed fighting was reported on Friday west of Misrata — Libya’s third largest city where rebels broke a two-month siege by loyalist forces last week.
“Kadhafi troops launched some Grad rockets at the western border of Misrata. We received one killed and eight injuries,” the head of the city’s medical committee, Khalid Abu Falra, told AFP.
A rebel spokesman in Benghazi, Jalal al-Gallal, said: “Kadhafi is trying to manoeuvre round Misrata. There are sporadic clashes near Zlitan (the next town to the west) and around the airport.”
Meanwhile, the family of South African photographer Anton Hammerl, missing in Libya for six weeks, revealed he had been shot dead by Kadhafi’s forces on the frontline between rebel-held eastern Libya and the mainly government-held west.
“Anton was shot by Kadhafi’s forces in an extremely remote location in the Libyan desert,” the Hammerl family said in a statement posted on Facebook.
“According to eyewitnesses, his injuries were such that he could not have survived without medical attention.”
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Kadhafi had personally assured her government that Hammerl, 41, was still alive.
“We were assured by Kadhafi himself, by his sons, and by advisers that Anton Hammerl was alive and well,” she told a news conference.
South African authorities only learned of Hammerl’s death after the release on Wednesday of four other journalists who were with him when he was shot in the Libyan desert, she said.
“The journalists knew that he had been killed but decided for their own survival not to say anything in consular contacts and telephone conversations with their families.”