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Apparent NATO bombing of Kadafi rural retreat raises questions

A tattered tent, shreds of carpet and other scorched debris were all that were left of a favored retreat of Moammar Kadafi just outside the Libyan capital, the aftermath of what appeared to be a NATO bombing run.

Was the usually idyllic nature preserve a “command and control” center used by the Libyan military? Or was this an example of NATO attempting to assassinate the longtime Libyan dictator?

A NATO official reached in Naples, Italy, late Wednesday emphasized that the Western alliance does not target people for killings, and the official would not confirm that North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes had even struck the site Tuesday. “It doesn’t sound like that would be the subject of our attention, so I’m not sure what you were shown there,” said the official, who under NATO rules could not be identified by name.

Ali Mohammed, chief caretaker of the preserve, couldn’t explain the presence of a fluttering wind sock on a remaining pole, the only possible evidence at first glance on Wednesday of any military use of the retreat. But he denied that the park, to which journalists were bused Wednesday by government minders, served as an air support facility and he became miffed at the insistent interrogation.

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“They think Col. Kadafi is everywhere,” Mohammed sniffed dismissively of NATO. “That’s why they hit everywhere.”

The preserve — including what appeared to be a luxury tent, now blasted to pieces — was among many targets apparently obliterated in Tuesday’s daylight bombing runs, some of NATO’s fiercest since its aerial barrage began in March. The alliance’s official rundown enumerated 66 strike sorties over Libya, with Tripoli-area targets including six “command and control” facilities, one vehicle storage depot, two self-propelled antiaircraft guns and one air surveillance radar system.

While most of the targets appeared to be in the capital, sites outside the city were also hit, Libyan officials say, including the preserve in the rural suburb of Hadba.

The Libyan government has long accused NATO of targeting Kadafi in contravention of its United Nations mandate to protect civilians under attack by government security forces. It was unclear whether Kadafi or any close associates were in the area of the preserve Tuesday.

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“Our leader, Moammar Kadafi, can receive his guests everywhere in Libya,” proclaimed Mohammed, who confirmed to Western journalists that Kadafi does visit the preserve — though he said he couldn’t remember when he was last there.

The type of incident seemed somewhat reminiscent of the March 2003 U.S. bombing of the Dora Farms complex south of Baghdad that targeted Saddam Hussein in an initial salvo of the American-led invasion of Iraq. As it happened, Hussein wasn’t there, and lived to be captured nine months later by U.S. forces in an underground hiding space near Tikrit.

While Hussein fancied opulent palaces, Kadafi prefers tents, camels and the siren call of the desert. Part of Kadafi’s mystique has been his affinity for the culture of his Bedouin ancestors, whose desert realms and expansive tents seem to hold a special allure for the mercurial head of state.

Camels and goats foraged in the brush Wednesday as Mohammed expounded on the major attraction of the preserve. “The leader likes the natural, wide-open spaces,” Mohammed told the journalists who showed up at midday at Kadafi’s once-idyllic, tree-lined haven on the outskirts of town. “That’s why he likes these places.”

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In recent weeks, Kadafi has had several narrow escapes in Tripoli, where NATO has targeted his command compound. Libyan officials said several caretakers were injured at the park Tuesday, but that there were no fatalities.

Inside the park, tattered scraps of tent fabric, shattered support posts and scalded hulks of vehicles, including what appeared to be a golf cart, were among the debris littering the ground. Smashed air-conditioning units, heaters and a shattered generator attested to a certain comfort level that apparently once prevailed in the sylvan retreat.

The site was where former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once met with Kadafi as the Libyan leader was seeking more normalized relations with the West, according to one government official here.

Smoke still rose from the blasted ground but there were no craters, indicating that heavy, bunker-busting bombs were not used here, as they were against Kadafi’s Bab Azizia compound in Tripoli, the capital.

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The camel herd scattered as an aircraft, apparently a NATO jet, was heard roaring overhead.

Tripoli returned to a kind of normalcy Wednesday, a day after the intense NATO bombardment, which, according to the government, left at least 31 people dead and dozens of others injured. Several blasts punctured the early morning hours, and others were heard in the evening, but the daylight hours were mostly uneventful.

Some gas stations reopened and people staked their place in lines that can stretch for miles and last as long as five days in this fuel-starved city. Several cafes surveyed seemed to be doing their normal business.

While the leader’s rural preserve could be easily restored to its former glory — tents and vehicles appeared to have been its major man-made features — the same cannot be said for his heavily fortified Bab Azizia compound. Much of the sprawling, walled site was reduced by multiple bombs to smoldering piles of jagged rubble — a fact that drew cheers from some, defiance from others.

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“We saw Bab Azizia for some many years, and I don’t think we ever thought it would be destroyed,” commented one observer. “And now it has happened so quickly.”

Others wondered whether the intensified bombing campaign could backfire, generating resentment among residents of a capital where a core of support for Kadafi remains. His supporters rallied again in Green Square, outside the old marketplace.

“The regime has got the message: They have to change,” said Omar Abdullah, 46, a Canadian-educated real estate entrepreneur who said he returned to his homeland about five years ago, encouraged by an economic liberalization that preceded the current conflict. “But you can’t kill somebody to make them have a democracy.”

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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