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World & Nation

Top Kadafi aide survives NATO airstrike

He is a man of peace, the Libyan government says, one of a group of junior officers who, with Moammar Kadafi, overthrew Libya’s king more than four decades ago and set out to create a more egalitarian society.

Rebels fighting to oust Kadafi say Khweldi Hamedi is something else: a ruthless henchman who oversaw the brutal suppression of an anti-Kadafi revolt and amassed enormous wealth and a vast estate.

On Monday, Hamedi’s estate lay in smoldering ruins — the aftermath of a NATO aerial blitz that killed 15 people, including three children, according to the Libyan government.

Hamedi, a Kadafi confidant and one of Libya’s power elite, survived the attack unharmed, the government says, but members of his extended family, including two grandchildren, were among the dead.

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Libyan authorities took foreign journalists based in Tripoli, the capital, to the heavily guarded farm near the town of Surman, 40 miles to the west. The government was eager to display evidence of a “barbaric” assault, in the words of Musa Ibrahim, the chief government spokesman.

The site had been pulverized. Several buildings were reduced to rubble. Broken glass, shards of concrete and other debris were scattered across the multi-acre compound.

A NATO spokesman, British Royal Air Force Wing Commander Mike Bracken, speaking by telephone from Naples, Italy, called the attack “a precision strike on a legitimate military target.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said it could not confirm reports of civilian deaths, but said it regretted “any loss of civilian life” and that it goes to “great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.”

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At the site, rescue teams in red suits worked with dogs to search for victims buried in the rubble.

Mohammed Nouri Khweldi, a cousin of Hamedi, told reporters he rushed to the compound after the bombing and found the remains of his 6-year-old daughter, Salam. She and others had stayed over after a birthday party, he said.

“I hope NATO has enough of my blood and the blood of our children,” Nouri said.

Nearby, women shrieked as more remains were pulled from the wreckage.

Journalists were later taken to a hospital in nearby Sabrata, where the remains of perhaps 10 people, including several children, lay on gurneys. All were covered in dust; many had suffered horrific injuries. A photo of Kadafi hung on the wall, and hospital staff occasionally broke into pro-Kadafi chants.

Amid the ruins of what was once a luxurious haven, the compound provided a glimpse of the life of one of Kadafi’s closest associates.

Photos of Hamedi showed him as a young officer meeting luminaries such as former Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism. Later portraits depicted him with a pair of former autocrats, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali — both ousted from office in the “Arab Spring” protests, a fate Kadafi is fighting hard to avoid.

Ibrahim, the government spokesman, described Hamedi, 68, as a man of principle who took in orphans, loved animals and helped negotiate a peaceful end to the February uprising that shook the city of Zawiya, just west of Tripoli.

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Rebels say Hamedi and his son, Khaled, are high-level military commanders who directed the brutal suppression of the protests in Zawiya. State television described the elder Hamedi’s rank as major general.

“He is no Mother Teresa,” Guma el-Gamaty said from Britain, where he is a coordinator for the rebels’ ruling transitional council. “He is basically a corrupt baron who has amassed billions of dollars of wealth.”

According to El-Gamaty, one of Hamedi’s daughters is married to one of Kadafi’s sons, Saadi. Ibrahim confirmed a connection between the two families, but said he did not know the specifics.

Based on the ruined compound, Hamedi appears to have a passion for falconry and Arabian horses, as well as eclectic art. In one well-appointed circular structure, huge vases of Chinese porcelain, now smashed, shared space with African ebony sculptures of elephants and other wildlife.

Among the many animals kept at the complex are several fenced-in deer, one of which had a broken antler and was bleeding from the nose. Songbirds chirped Monday afternoon, even as smoke still rose from the rubble.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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