TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi stood defiant Tuesday in the face of the heaviest and most punishing NATO airstrikes yet — at least 40 thunderous daylight attacks that sent plumes of smoke billowing above the Libyan leader’s central Tripoli compound.
In late afternoon and as the strikes continued, Libyan state television broadcast an audio address from Gadhafi, who denounced NATO and the rebels challenging his rule. He vowed never to surrender.
“We will not kneel!” he shouted.
Alliance officials have warned for days they were increasing the scope and intensity of their air campaign to oust Gadhafi after more than 40 years in power. NATO is backing the rebel insurgency, which has seized swaths of eastern Libya and pockets in the regime’s stronghold in the west since it began in February, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
Some 6,850 people, nearly all of them Libyans, have streamed across the border from Libya to Tunisia since Monday to flee the NATO raids as well as fighting between the rebels and government forces, according to the Tunisian Defence Ministry.
It couldn’t be confirmed whether Gadhafi’s some 10-minute speech was a live phone call or an audio recording, but it appeared to take state television by surprise. The sound was hastily adjusted to make it louder
“We will not surrender: we only have one choice — to the end! Death, victory, it does not matter, we are not surrendering!” Gadhafi said. Highlighting his anger, he called the rebels “bastards.”
As he spoke, reporters in Tripoli heard the whooshing sound of low-flying military craft again, followed by several explosions. Pro-Gadhafi loyalists also fired celebratory gunfire in the air.
Gadhafi was last seen in a brief appearance on state television in late May. He has mostly been in hiding since NATO strikes in April targeted one of his homes. Libyan officials said one of his sons, Saif al-Arab, and three of his grandchildren were killed in that strike.
Western reporters and a senior Libyan government official said the pounding airstrikes Tuesday easily outstripped the number of bombing runs on any day since the international air campaign began in mid-March.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim claimed some 30 people were killed in 60 NATO strikes on Tripoli. Previous government tolls have proven to be exaggerated, and reporters, who face tight restrictions in the Libyan capital, saw only one dead man during a visit to Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound.
The dust-covered bloodied man was draped around a cement column at one of the crushed compound buildings. He was seen on a government-escorted tour of bombed sites.
The boot and legs of the man, identified as Misbah Hussein, in his forties, stuck out from beneath a pile of twisted metal close to the remains of a building just inside the eastern entrance of the Gadhafi compound.
As his comrades realized what they were staring at, they rushed toward him, their arms raised.
“Bring a blanket!” one shouted.
They wrapped him in the closest thing they could find — a large green flag — green being the iconic colour of the Gadhafi regime.
A soldier said eight strikes targeted the building, which he said was a guest house for visiting dignitaries.
Around him, one building was smashed into three hulking cement parts and the floor was strewn with small chunks of metal, foam and cement.
He said some two dozen soldiers and civilians were sitting near the building when it was hit. He would not be named, citing military regulations.
A strike smashed another nearby building that officials identified as a guest house. The ground was littered with small grey shards.
That was not far from a zone where pro-Gadhafi supporters have camped in tents for the past few weeks to act as human shields against NATO strikes.
NATO issued no immediate comment on battering it delivered over Tripoli.
Gadhafi’s inner circle has been shaken by a wave of defections. A Libyan rebel diplomat in Geneva said Tuesday that the country’s labour minister Al-Amin Manfour — who had been representing Libya at the International Labor Organization’s annual meeting — has defected and joined the rebels.
Adel Shaltut said Tuesday that Manfour was on his way to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, in eastern Libya. Shaltut and other diplomats at Libya’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva defected to the rebels in February.
Russia, meanwhile, was renewing diplomatic efforts to end the civil war.
Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin’s special representative for Africa, said Gadhafi had lost his legitimacy but that NATO airstrikes were not a solution to the stalemate in Libya.
“As long as bloodshed continues the more difficult it will be to build a national reconciliation process after the civil war,” Margelov told reporters Tuesday during a visit to the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
Margelov left Benghazi for Cairo, the Interfax news agency reported, adding that the rebels said they supported Russia’s mediation with Tripoli. The envoy did not, however, have plans to go to Tripoli.
Russia, along with China, abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote authorizing the use of force against Libyan government loyalists and has repeatedly criticized the NATO bombing campaign in support of the rebels.
U.N. envoy Abdul-Elah al-Khatib was expected in Tripoli. And Libya dispatched Foreign Minister Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi to Beijing for a three days of talks, an apparent effort to restore some of Libyan government influence and defuse a setback delivered by China last week. Chinese officials announced on Friday that they had reached out to the rebel forces challenging Gadhafi, a significant effort to boost Chinese engagement in the Libya conflict and possibly jostle for a mediator role.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters at a regular briefing Tuesday that talks with al-Obeidi would focus on the need for a political solution to the Libyan crisis.
The revolt against Gadhafi followed popular uprisings that overturned the longtime rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. As the conflict escalated, it grew beyond an insurrection by a small group and has now evolved into a civil war.
The refugees, who were mainly Libyan but also included Egyptians, Sudanese and Nigerians, crossed at the Ras Djedir and Dhehiba border points, then were transferred to a camp in the border area of Tataouine set up by the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia’s Defence Ministry said.
Associated Press Writer Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Benghazi, Gillian Wong in Beijing and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.