Africa

Coalition strikes at heart of Gaddafi regime

A building inside Col Gaddafi's sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, said to have been hit by a coalition air strike, early on Monday
Image caption Col Gaddafi's compound has become a symbol of his defiance against Western "imperialism"

The anti-aircraft guns open up without warning.

To those on the ground in Tripoli the missiles or aircraft they are firing at are neither audible nor visible.

They are also almost certainly too high to be vulnerable to the anti-aircraft rounds that snake into the night sky, in orange and red arcs above us, and fill the air with the deafening echo of an artillery barrage.

One missile struck Col Muammar Gaddafi's own residential compound late in the night. We heard the hard metallic impact and then the rumble of the explosion.

Government officials took a group of journalists during the night to see the damage. The missile had demolished most of a three-storey building.

The allies said the purpose was to disable a command and communication facility.

A Libyan government spokesman said it proved that the allied attack on Libya was not about protecting civilians; this attack had directly endangered civilians, he said.

Supporters

Only a day earlier, I went to the compound myself, no more than a couple of hours before the allied bombing began.

It houses the iconic building that was struck by an American bomb in 1986. Col Gaddafi has left it unrepaired for 25 years. It has become a symbol of national defiance in Libya, and enhances Col Gaddafi's image as the anti-imperialist Arab leader who stood alone against the might of America and survived triumphant.

Thousands of ordinary Libyans had poured into the compound on Saturday, willingly, it seemed, and with great enthusiasm.

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Media captionWatch: US Army General states Colonel Gaddafi is not a target

They had come to express their solidarity with their leader. Young men chanted rhythmic slogans of support; women said they loved Muammar Gaddafi; old men said he was their brother and their father.

They had come to show that if he was to die, they were ready to die with him.

There seemed no doubting their sincerity. But how representative are they?

We cannot know what is in the minds of the hundreds of thousands of Tripoli citizens who do not join these spontaneous demonstrations of devotion. The true sentiment of Tripoli, in the current atmosphere, is unknowable.

How many of those thousands were still there when the missile struck last night? Were any of them harmed?

The government says 300 had stayed and that they were camped just 50-100m (160-330 feet) from the building that was struck - proof, to the regime here, that it is the coalition bombardment that is the real threat to civilian lives.

It is a message that will resonate here, especially as Tripoli buries the dead in its cemeteries, and as Col Gaddafi's much depleted forces prepare to face an increasingly confident rebel force in the east.

It is also a message that could yet divide world opinion, and undermine the international support that the coalition has, until now, enjoyed.

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