The reports from the Libyan government that NATO airstrikes killed Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi’s youngest son, Saif al-Arab, and three grandchildren, underscore two things: (1) The difficulties faced by NATO in keeping the mandate of a United Nations resolution that allows it to maintain a no-fly zone over Libya and to protect civilians and (2) the challenge of getting accurate information about what is going on in Libya.
NATO commanders insist that they had “struck a legitimate military target” and had not targeted Gaddafi, says the New York Times. However, Gaddafi himself has accused NATO commanders of mounting an assassination attempt against him, which is illegal under international law. The Russian foreign ministry has accused NATO of “exceeding the mandate” of the UN resolution, noting that Saturday night’s airstrike “‘arouses serious doubts about coalition members’ statement that the strikes in Libya do not have the goal of physically annihilating M. Qaddafi and members of his family.’”
Konstantin I. Kosachev, chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, added that he was surprised about “the total silence of the presidents of the U.S., France, and some other Western countries,” in regard to the reported deaths.
According to the Libyan government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, Gaddafi himself and his wife, Safiya, were in the residence but escaped uninjured. The Guardian adds that:
The attack, which one diplomatic source said had been carried out by Danish airmen possibly in an F16 bomber, ripped through the Gaddafi residence at around 8pm on Saturday night. It was the second time in recent days that an airstrike has come close to the Libyan leader, and Ibrahim indicated that someone within the leader’s circle may have leaked intelligence on his whereabouts.
But in Washington, Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser in the Bush administration, warned that the assassination of Gaddafi by Nato aircraft could prove counterproductive.
“The narrative we want to come out of this is that the Libyan people overthrew a dictator – not that we came in and toppled a despot,” he told CNN. “What we really want him to do is to leave or to die at a Libyan hand, not an American hand.”
However, the Guardian also quotes two senior Republicans who “expressed little concern over the prospect of Gaddafi becoming a casualty.” Senator Lindsey Graham of Florida told FOX News that Gaddafi is a “legitimate military target,” while Senator John McCain of Arizona told CBS, “We should be taking out his command and control. If he is killed or injured because of that, that’s fine.”
British diplomats have reported that, in retaliation for the airstrikes, a “mob” of Gaddafi supporters destroyed western embassy buildings in Tripoli that had recently been abandoned as the unrest in Libya grew:
A British official, speaking on condition of anonymity said there was no doubt in London that the mob attacks had been officially sanctioned. “There are no demos allowed to move anywhere in Tripoli unless they are 100% orchestrated by the regime.”
The British Foreign Minister, William Hague, has condemned the attacks on the British embassy buildings. The Libyan ambassador, Omar Jelban, was given 24 hours to leave the UK.
The deaths of Saif al-Arab and of Gaddafi’s three grandchildren have been widely reported in news outlets, though not confirmed by NATO or other sources beyond the Libyan government. Al-Jazeera reports “skepticism” about the reported deaths. While the news was greeted with cries of “‘God is great’” in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, opposition fighters noted that “they could not trust Gaddafi.”
Reporting from Benghazi on Sunday, Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton says that there are an “‘awful lot’” of suggestions in Libya that the news of the deaths has been made up:
“One of the main spokesmen for the Transitional National Council, Abdul Hafez Goga, is saying he thinks it could all be fabrication, that it may well be Gaddafi is trying to garner some sympathy,” she said.
“Back in 1986, Gaddafi once claimed that Ronald Reagan, then US president, had launched a strike on his compound in Tripoli and killed his daughter.
“Many journalists since then dug around and found out that the actual child that had died had nothing to do with Gaddafi, that he sort of adopted her posthumously.”
Among Gaddafi’s children, Saif al-Arab has kept a very “low profile.” Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from the Tunisia-Libya border, says that “He hasn’t been visible in any significant form. He hasn’t appeared on TV or made any speeches, he hasn’t been on any crowd-rallying marches.”
The Guardian reports that Saif al-Arab had been “increasingly well known to the police in Munich, where he was a student at the city’s Technical University from 2006″ on, among other things, allegations of smuggling arms. In 2006, he was detained after a fight with a bouncer at a Munich nightclub. The brawl occurred “after his girlfriend began stripping on the dance floor,” according to a press account. Saif al-Arab was recalled home when the Libyan revolt broke out, put in charge of a unit of troops and sent east, though it is not known how much combat he partcipated in.
Fighting continues in Libya, on its western border with Tunisia; near the rebel-held city of Zintan, where rebel forces said NATO air strikes had hit pro-Gaddafi troops; and in the western city of Misurata, where rebel fighters have tried to seize the airport from Gaddafi forces. In the video below, Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley reports from Benghazi about the situation in Misurata.
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