U.S. and British defense officials Tuesday declared Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s headquarters in Tripoli a “legitimate” target, but denied that NATO is trying to kill the Libyan dictator.
The Western alliance is “not targeting [Col. Gadhafi] specifically,” said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, after a meeting in Washington with British Defense Secretary Liam Fox.
“But we do consider command-and-control targets legitimate targets, wherever we find them,” he added.
NATO jets hit Col. Gadhafi’s command center on Monday, leaving about 45 people injured.
Mr. Fox said the coalition understands its commitment to protect the civilian population in Libya, as outlined in a U.N. resolution that authorized air raids against pro-Gadhafi forces.
“We understand our duty. And our resolve will not waiver, as long as that civilian population remains at risk from an aggressive and wicked regime, which has waged war on its own people,” he added.
Earlier Tuesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the coalition had no mandate to kill Col. Gadhafi.
“They said they didn’t want to kill Gadhafi. Now some officials say, ‘Yes, we are trying to kill Gaddafi,’ ” Mr. Putin said on a visit to Denmark. “Who permitted this? Was there any trial? Who took on the right to execute this man, no matter who he is.”
Libyans interviewed Tuesday told The Washington Times that they would support plans to assassinate Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled the North African nation for more than 41 years and is now locked in a bloody civil war against anti-government rebels.
A resident of Tripoli who declined to give his name citing security concerns said many people in the Libyan capital “are wishing and hoping that [NATO is] targeting Gadhafi.”
A similar sentiment prevails in Libyas Western Mountains region, which has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent days.
“If NATO chooses to attack him, why not? He is after all targeting civilians with Grad rockets,” said Mazigh, a resident of a Western Mountains town who only gave his first name.
Col. Gadhafi and his family are thought to be staying at Bab al-Aziziya, a heavily fortified military barracks in Tripoli.
The regimes forces on Tuesday shelled the port city of Misrata, a key lifeline in the rebel-held city in western Libya. Rebels said pro-Gadhafi forces fired at least nine rockets and caused extensive damage.
Saddoun el-Misrati, a rebel spokesman who was at the port at the time of the shelling, described it as “the closest thing I have seen to Pearl Harbor.”
Rebels say they control Misrata, including the main road Tripoli Street, and that pro-Gadhafi snipers have been cleared from rooftops.
The Libyan government denies it has been indiscriminately shelling civilian areas.
In the Western Mountains area, more than 30,000 Libyan civilians have fled into Tunisia over the past three weeks, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Nearly 560,000 Libyans have escaped into neighboring countries, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.