Strike on Libya came after West intercepted high-level communications

A NATO missile strike that killed one of Moammar Kadafi’s sons was launched after Western intelligence intercepted high-level communications from the site.

By David S. Cloud and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
May 2, 2011
Reporting from Washington and Benghazi, Libya

A NATO missile strike that Libyan officials say killed one of Moammar Kadafi’s sons and three of his grandchildren was launched after Western intelligence intercepted high-level communications from the site.

Up to three missiles slammed into what appears to have been an upscale villa in Tripoli late Saturday after “clear indications from signals” that the Libyan regime was using it to communicate with military units to carry out attacks against rebel-held areas, said a senior NATO officer.

Signals intelligence” is a term for various forms of personal and electronic communications, including cellphone conversations and email. It wasn’t clear if intelligence operations had detected Kadafi’s voice or had intercepted other communications by him or his aides.

The building “had been disguised as a residence but was really a C2 [command-and-control] bunker,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence, said Sunday. “It just so happened certain folks were there.”

The Libyan government said Kadafi and his wife, Safiya, were on a social visit at the house in the Bab Azizia area when the attack occurred but that they escaped harm. Reporters who were taken to the site said it was difficult to see how anyone could have survived the explosions, which left shattered concrete, twisted metal and children’s books and toys in a deep crater above what appeared to be an underground cellar or bunker.

The strike was the second in a week, and at least the fourth since the air war began in mid-March, against a facility used by Kadafi. NATO officers, frustrated by their inability to stop Kadafi’s military and mercenary forces from attacking civilians, said last week that they intended to expand their target list and step up attacks against the regime’s command facilities.

In Tripoli, mobs attacked the U.S., British and Italian embassies, which have been closed since the international air campaign began, in apparent reaction to the latest airstrike. A BBC report from Tripoli said the British Embassy was “completely burnt out” by fire.

The United Nations compound in Tripoli also was looted and U.N. officials said they had withdrawn their 12 remaining international staff to neighboring Tunisia.

Intruders apparently set fire to a building in the U.S. Embassy compound, and had occupied the two other buildings, according to a U.S. official. Turkish diplomats have been overseeing security at the shuttered U.S. mission.

Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said he could not confirm the attacks. “If true, we condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms,” he said.

In London, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that Libya’s ambassador, Omar Jelban, had been ordered to leave the country within 24 hours. By failing to protect diplomatic missions, Hague said, the Kadafi regime had “once again breached its international responsibilities and obligations.”

The Italian Foreign Ministry condemned the “acts of vandalism” on its embassy, calling them “grave and vile.” Italy last week became the seventh NATO nation to take part in the bombing missions in Libya.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the report of the deaths of Kadafi’s son and grandchildren was denounced as a likely hoax meant to garner international sympathy for Kadafi and undermine support for the NATO bombing campaign.

Libyan state television showed a body identified as that of Kadafi’s 29-year-old son, Seif Arab Kadafi, lying in state in Tripoli as dignitaries paid their respects. It was covered in a green Libyan flag, a banner designed by the Kadafi regime, and no face was visible.

A Libyan government spokesman called the airstrike “a direct operation to assassinate the leader of this country.”

NATO officials declined to say which country’s warplanes had fired the missiles.

The Obama administration and NATO defended the airstrike amid criticism from Russia and Venezuela, among others, that the alliance had overstepped the U.N. mandate to protect civilians.

NATO officials said the attack targeted “a known command-and-control building” and was not aimed at killing Kadafi, and that they were surprised when Libyan officials revealed that Kadafi had been inside.

A NATO official noted, however, that “command-and-control centers don’t operate themselves,” suggesting some leeway in the defining and selection of targets.

A U.S. military officer played down the possibility that the strike would deepen divisions among alliance members about the goals and tactics of the air campaign.

“As long as these targets are legitimate command, control, intelligence or operationally relevant sites, they will be hit and NATO can easily defend the hitting,” the officer said.

Killing Kadafi is probably a long shot, several officials said. A more realistic goal, they said, is to increase pressure on him, hoping to force defections from his inner circle and weaken his regime.

“That’s the delicate line we’ve been dancing all along,” said a NATO officer. “Ultimately, by eliminating Kadafi’s ability to kill his citizenry, the Libyans will be able to decide” their own future.

In Washington, two influential U.S. senators said on TV talk shows that they had no problem targeting Kadafi as part of Libya’s command-and-control structure.

“In my view, wherever Kadafi goes, he is the legitimate military target. He’s the command-and-control source,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’d like to have a pour-it-on approach to get this over with.”

Asked if such strikes would violate a U.S. ban on assassinating foreign leaders, Graham said Kadafi was “acting as a murderer,” making him a legitimate target.

“He is not the legitimate leader of Libya,” Graham said. “He should be brought to justice or he should be killed.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a fervent supporter of increasing aid to rebel leaders, said that killing Kadafi could be legitimate “if you view Kadafi himself as part of the command and control.”

But McCain cautioned on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that it was difficult to eliminate foreign leaders, citing unsuccessful attempts to target Saddam Hussein during the Iraq invasion in 2003, and the decade-old hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“It’s not as easy as you think, so we should be taking out [Kadafi’s] command and control, and if he’s injured because of that, that’s fine,” said McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

On the battlefield, troops loyal to Kadafi were reported to have intensified attacks on several fronts, including the besieged port city of Misurata. Pro-regime troops have fired artillery and rockets into the port, endangering ships that bring supplies in and take refugees out.

A rebel spokesman, Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, said the rebels had confirmed reports that gas masks were being distributed to regime troops outside Misurata.

“We fear they’re getting ready to do something dirty,” Bani said in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital hundreds of miles from the fighting in Misurata.

There was no independent confirmation of the gas mask report and no evidence that loyalist troops are armed with any kind of chemical weapons. Each side in the war has previously made exaggerated claims.

A Western official dismissed the report as rumor and speculated that government loyalists may have spread it to fuel panic in edgy Misurata. “It sounds like a Kadafi psy-ops campaign,” said the official, using military shorthand for psychological operations conducted in conflict zones.

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