Muammar Gaddafi Makes First Appearance Since Son's Death
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libyan television showed Muammar Gaddafi meeting officials in a Tripoli hotel, ending nearly two weeks of doubt over his fate since a NATO air strike that killed his son.
The Libyan leader, who had not been seen in public since an April 30 strike killed his youngest son and three grandchildren, made his appearance on Wednesday in trademark brown robe, dark sunglasses and black hat.
Gaddafi was shown greeting a group of tribal leaders who support him. "You will be victorious," an old man told Gaddafi.
Four months into a revolt against his rule, Gaddafi is still holding doggedly onto power despite weeks of NATO strikes on his military and command structures.
The conflict has now entered stalemate, with Gaddafi in control of most of the west of the country, while the rebels are hemmed in to their stronghold in the east and a few pockets in the west.
State television reported that the North Korean embassy in Tripoli had suffered major damage in a NATO strike.
"We have seen these reports. We cannot verify them independently. NATO conducts all its strikes with the greatest precision to avoid damage to the civilian population, unlike the Gaddafi regime and its forces," a NATO official said.
The report is likely to revive uncomfortable memories for the alliance of an incident in 1999 when it bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during a campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
The rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi -- having seen attempts to advance west on the capital bogged down in the desert -- is now focusing on drumming up more international support.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, met British Prime Minister David Cameron in London and received a pledge of help.
"The government is today inviting the council to establish a formal office here in London," Cameron told reporters. "We will work with you to ensure that the international community increases the diplomatic, the economic and the military pressure on this bankrupt regime."
The United States has also been providing the rebels with help, delivering its first shipment of food rations as part of a $25 million non-lethal aid package.
Offering a glimmer of encouragement for Western governments which hope Gaddafi's rule will collapse from within, Tripoli's consul in Cairo said he was quitting his post to join rebel ranks.
He joined a string of senior Libyan officials who have broken ties with Gaddafi's government.
NATO air strikes, which have now become an almost daily occurrence in Tripoli, hit the city again overnight.
A Reuters correspondent said he heard at least two blasts early on Thursday. The explosions were powerful enough to rattle the windows of the hotel just south of the city center where foreign media are staying.
Libyan officials said two people had been killed in NATO strikes and showed foreign journalists two bodies at a hospital.
Staff at the hospital said they had treated more than 20 people who had been wounded.
Western governments say they are carrying out their military intervention in Libya to stop Gaddafi's forces killing civilians who rose up against his rule in a rebellion which took its lead from uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
Libyan officials deny killing civilians, saying instead they are fighting criminal armed gangs and al Qaeda militants. They say the NATO air strikes are an act of colonial aggression by countries that want to grab Libya's oil wealth.
Rebels in the city of Misrata, their only major stronghold in the west of Libya, hailed an important victory on Wednesday, saying they had seized the city airport from pro-Gaddafi forces.
The rebels said they had also seized large quantities of weapons and munitions. No independent verification of the rebels' account was available.
Taking the airport would be a psychological boost for rebels who have been grimly defending the besieged city for weeks, but it was unlikely to change the military balance of power.
The city, Libya's third largest, is still encircled by pro-Gaddafi forces and cut off from other rebel holdouts by thousands of kilometers of desert.
On another front in the rebels' conflict with Gaddafi loyalists, in the barren Western mountains region south-west of Tripoli, anti-Gaddafi fighters are holding off attempts by loyalists to take their mountain-top positions.
Government forces lob rockets and artillery from the plains below, yet apart from areas on the eastern edge of the mountain range, they have been unable to gain much ground.
At a training session on Wednesday in the mountain town of Kabaw, rebel fighters chanted "We're coming, Muammar!".
But the reality is there is little prospect of them breaking out of their mountain haven and advancing on the capital.
"Now, we are just defending," said one of the their commanders, British-educated Tarek Zanbou. "If we get weapons, we can push them (pro-Gaddafi forces) to Tripoli. But now we are in a defensive situation."
Thousands of people have been killed since the revolt broke out against Gaddafi's rule in late February.
(Reporting by Matt Robinson in Zintan, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Deepa Babington in Benghazi, Isabel Coles in Cairo, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Peter Griffiths and Stefano Ambrogi in London; writing by Sylvia Westall and Christian Lowe, editing by Ralph Boulton)
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