NATO airstrikes hit Moammar Gadhafi's sprawling compound in Tripoli and three other sites early Thursday, hours after the Libyan leader was shown on state TV in his first appearance since his son was killed nearly two weeks ago.
Explosions thundered across the capital and ambulances raced through the city as the last missile exploded.
Government officials and state-run Libyan television said the strikes targeted Bab al-Azaziya, Gadhafi's compound, but did not specify which buildings were hit. Reporters who were taken there later Thursday saw one missile-damaged building, and evidence that at least three missiles had hit the compound.
NATO, which has hit the Libyan capital repeatedly this week, said Thursday's attack successfully hit "a large command and control bunker complex in downtown Tripoli that was used to co-ordinate attacks against civilian populations."
In the eastern city of Benghazi, headquarters for the opposition movement trying to topple Gadhafi, rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga claimed that anti-Gadhafi residents in the Tripoli area were staging peaceful demonstrations in many neighborhoods, prompting the regime to deploy troops and tanks in the streets that may have been diverted from other regions.
Two reported killed in attack
Ghoga, who did not specify the source of his information, said anti-Gadhafi militants had burned a police station in one suburb, and were setting up night patrols and checkpoints in other neighborhoods. There was no immediate independent confirmation of his claims; the foreign journalists in Tripoli are assigned government minders and limited in their movements.
After the early-morning airstrikes, medics arrived at Khadra Hospital with the bodies of two men they said were killed in the attack. One of bodies was charred; the other was covered by a green blanket, a leg dangling from the stretcher.
From a bus ferrying reporters to the hospital, smoke could be seen rising from part of the Gadhafi compound. Skid marks left from screeching vehicles crisscrossed the roads around it.
The medics said others had been killed by the airstrikes and were still being retrieved from the compound.
Gadhafi's compound has been a frequent site of recent airstrikes, including one on April 30 that killed the leader's son, Seif al-Arab. Officials said Gadhafi — Libya's autocratic leader for 42 years — was in the compound when that strike occurred but escaped unharmed.
NATO has repeatedly said all its targets in Libya are military and that it is not targeting Gadhafi or other individuals. In its latest update Thursday, NATO denied targeting the North Korean Embassy in Tripoli — a response to a report by the Libyan state news agency JANA that the embassy had been damaged during one of this week's strikes.
Gadhafi had seven sons and one daughter. He also had an adopted daughter who was killed in 1986 when a U.S. airstrike hit the Bab al-Aziziya residential compound in retaliation for a bombing attack on a German disco in which two U.S. servicemen were killed.
Gadhafi shown on television
In an apparent effort to dispel rumors that Gadhafi himself had been killed, Libyan state TV showed him meeting tribal leaders, but did not record him speaking. To authenticate the scene, the camera zoomed in on the date on a TV monitor in the room, which read Wednesday, May 11. It was apparently recorded at the hotel where foreign correspondents must reside in Tripoli. Gadhafi did not make himself available to them.
The last time Gadhafi had been seen in public previously was April 9, when he visited a school in Tripoli.
Intensified NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi's forces across Libya have given a boost to rebels fighting to oust the regime, with the opposition claiming Wednesday that it had captured the airport in the western city of Misrata. In all, NATO said, the alliance has carried out more than 2,400 airstrikes since March 31 as part of the effort to assist the rebels and pressure Gadhafi relinquish power.
Even though some of the recent reports of ground combat are difficult to confirm, they seem to represent a major boost for the rebels' military prospects after weeks of stalemate on several fronts.
The rebels control most of eastern Libya, but Misrata — about 200 kilometres southeast of Tripoli — is the only rebel stronghold in the west. Local doctors say more than 1,000 of its residents have been killed in the fighting and shelling during the siege by Gadhafi's forces.
In Tripoli, a government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, denied the Misrata rebels' claims of success, saying regime forces still held the airport.
Embargo having effect on daily life
Ibrahim did acknowledge that the war was creating severe shortages of many commodities in Tripoli.
"The NATO airstrikes and the sea embargo … are badly influencing the lives of daily Libyans," he said. "We have some shortages in fuel, food and medicine. It makes it difficult to go to schools, hospitals and factories."
A potential humanitarian crisis was reported Thursday by the World Food Program in the mountain region of western Libya. Josette Sheeran, the WFP executive director, said fighting in the area between rebels and regime forces has prevented aid from reaching civilians trapped in some hard-to-reach villages.
She appealed for a ceasefire so deliveries could be made safely.
Britain said Thursday that it will supply police officers in rebel-held eastern Libya with uniforms and body armor, and help establish a public radio station. The announcement came after Prime Minister David Cameron and other ministers met in London with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the rebels' National Transitional Council.
Cameron said he had invited Abdul-Jalil to open a permanent office in London to help cement contacts with Britain, although Britain has not followed France and Italy in recognizing the council as Libya's legitimate government.