In a one-two punch against Moammar Gadhafi's forces, NATO warplanes struck a command center in the capital, Tripoli, on Tuesday, after pounding regime targets around the besieged port of Misrata. Rebels hoped the stepped-up attacks could help extend some of their biggest advances to date, including a major outward push from Misrata.
The opposition also said it made gains along a long-deadlocked front near the eastern town of Ajdabiya.
Gadhafi, Libya's autocratic ruler since 1969, has not been seen in public since one of his sons was killed in a NATO airstrike April 30. A NATO official, Italian Brig. Gen. Claudio Gabellini, said the alliance had no evidence to indicate whether Gadhafi was alive or dead.
The rebels' military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, said opposition forces had pushed Gadhafi's troops out of rocket range on the west side of Misrata and dislodged them from the airport after two days of battles, raising the prospect that the siege could be broken.
Bani said rebels from Misrata and Zlitan, 35 miles west, had joined up to fight in close-range combat that rendered the regime forces' long-range rockets useless. Speaking to The Associated Press in the rebel headquarters city of Benghazi, Bani said Gadhafi's brigades were pushed about 10 miles back from Misrata's airport.
"The picture is looking good for us," he said.
Reporting from Benghazi, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro said the development showed the rebels have momentum on their side.
"The aim of the rebels in this is to push Gadhafi's forces far enough back so that they aren't able to reach the civilian population inside Misrata with their Grad missiles," she said, adding that the missiles have been raining down on the civilian population for weeks.
Garcia-Navarro said the airport is key because the rebels need a way other than the port to bring in supplies. "For example, today a boat laden with weapons and fighters tried to leave Benghazi for Misrata but was turned back because of bad weather, so it's an unreliable way to supply the city."
The U.S. State Department said the first load of nonlethal American military aid for the rebels landed Tuesday at the port in their headquarters city, Benghazi.
Spokesman Mark Toner said the shipment consisted of more than 10,000 meals, with further shipments of medical supplies, boots and protective gear to arrive shortly. The delivery came ahead of planned meetings in Washington this week between U.S. officials and the head of the opposition Transitional National Council.
The Battle Lines
The Libyan conflict, dating to mid-February, had seemed stalemated for more than a week, with most of the fighting along the border with Tunisia in the far west. The latest airstrikes and overland advances offer the rebels new hope in their struggle to topple Gadhafi and win greater freedoms.
In Benghazi, the battle lines haven't shifted for weeks, Garcia-Navarro reported.
"One of the reasons [is that] NATO is now coordinating with the rebels and has asked them to basically maintain a buffer zone between their forces and the forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and the town of Brega," she said.
The rebels control most of eastern Libya, and Gadhafi most of the west, including Tripoli. Exceptions in the west include pockets of embattled rebel-held towns along the border with Tunisia, and Misrata on the coast.
The NATO planes struck what the alliance called a command and control facility in downtown Tripoli early Tuesday, according to Gabellini.
"All NATO targets are military targets," said Gabellini, who serves on NATO's planning staff at the headquarters in Naples.
He denied that NATO was targeting Gadhafi, saying: "We have no evidence about what Mr. Gadhafi is doing right now, and to tell you the truth we're not really interested."
Gabellini also said 30 regime military targets have been hit since May 2 around Misrata, which has been under siege by Gadhafi's forces for two months. The targets included 12 tanks, three self-propelled guns, three multiple-rocket launchers, and various vehicles, he said.
"Although it's a real challenge for us to strike military targets in and around population centers like Misrata, while minimizing the risks to innocent civilians, we have been working hard to prevent attacks by pro-Gadhafi forces," Gabellini said.
Rebel Plea For Arms
The rebels posted video clips calling on Gadhafi's forces in the Misrata area to surrender.
"We are after you Gadhafi," one of the fighters in the video said.
Bani, the rebel spokesman, praised the latest NATO airstrikes.
"They are doing their jobs very, very well," he said. "We will need these airstrikes when we are planning to advance on the ground."
Still, he said the rebels needed the world to respond to their pleas for heavy weaponry before they can make a final push against Gadhafi's more heavily armed forces.
"We are waiting patiently until our friends in the free world arm us," he said. "When we get those weapons, with the help of our friends, I am sure we can solve this problem within a month, maximum."
Bani also contended that some regime soldiers in far-western Libya had raped women in a small village near the town of Zintan after killing many other civilians there. There was no way to corroborate the report.
In eastern Libya, rebels reported advances near the oil oasis of Jalu and also between the towns of Ajdabiya and Brega after being bogged down on that front for weeks.
Walid Mohamed, a rebel manning a checkpoint outside Ajdabiya, said some of his comrades had advanced roughly 20 miles westward toward Brega after what he described as the fiercest fighting in weeks on that battle front. Brega has an oil terminal and Libya's second-largest hydrocarbon complex.
A doctor at the hospital in Ajdabiya, Ahmed Mohamed, said the facility had received the bodies of six slain rebels on Monday and treated three others for wounds before they were transferred to a hospital in the rebel headquarters of Benghazi, 90 miles to the north.
Ajdabiya in peacetime has a population of more than 100,000 but has been largely deserted because of the fighting.
Though rebel appeals for heavier arms from abroad have gone unheeded, NATO has intensified airstrikes on regime forces as many countries demand that Gadhafi relinquish power.
In the latest strike, NATO planes hit several sites in Tripoli, setting off explosions that thundered through the city overnight. One strike hit a building that locals said was used by a military intelligence agency. Another targeted a government building that officials said was sometimes used by Parliament members.
"It was a very sustained bombing campaign," Garcia-Navarro reported. "It lasted for about three hours. It was one of the heaviest bombing campaigns we've seen in recent weeks in Tripoli, so clearly the pressure is stepping up."
It was not immediately clear what the other strikes hit, but one of them sent plumes of smoke that appeared to come from the sprawling compound housing members of Gadhafi's family.
Government escorts in Tripoli did not allow reporters near the site of one building that was hit in the NATO attack. Residents said the building was used by a military intelligence agency.
Reporters, who may not leave their Tripoli hotel without government escorts, were shown damage done to a nearby hospital. A physician, Dr. Mustafa Rahim, said a 4-year-old boy was badly injured, but he would not allow reporters to see the child, saying he was in intensive care.
Another strike targeted a building previously struck once that two employees said was used by Parliament members and housed a library for research into Gadhafi's writings.
Migrants Killed At Sea
Meanwhile, the United Nations said Tuesday that almost everyone on an overcrowded ship carrying some 600 African migrants to Europe on Friday is believed to have died when the vessel broke apart.
The U.N. accused the Libyan government of complicity in a rising number of deadly smuggling incidents, many involving workers from sub-Saharan Africa who had moved to Libya to find work before war broke out there in March.
International agencies say some recent migrants report being forced onto dangerously packed ships at gunpoint by Libyan soldiers.
"International humanitarian organizations are asking — pleading, because there are many of these boats trying to get to Europe — for NATO to intervene if they see them [or] if they hear distress calls, because many of these boats appear to be unstable and putting the lives of these refugees at risk," Garcia-Navarro said.
A spokesman for Gadhafi suggested that increased illegal immigration was the price European nations would pay for their military and political support of the rebels trying to topple Libya's strongman.
"Because of the NATO aggression against our country and because our coastal border guard is being hit daily ... we are unable to deal with this situation and that is why Europe is being flooded with illegal immigration," government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. "We cannot be the guards of Europe at this moment."
This report contains material from The Associated Press Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.