TRIPOLI, Libya, (AP) – NATO airstrikes pounded two government buildings early Tuesday in the Libyan capital, including the interior ministry, setting them on fire and prompting a government spokesman to suggest the ministry was targeted because it contained files on corruption cases against senior members of the Benghazi-based rebel leadership.
The latest strikes on Gaddafi’s stronghold came just hours after the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor sought arrest warrants for the Libyan leader, his son and the country’s intelligence chief for authorizing the killing of civilians in a crackdown on anti-government rebels. Gaddafi’s government denied the allegations.
The call for the inquest was the first such action in the Netherlands-based court linked to the Arab uprisings. It opened another potential front against Gaddafi’s regime even as the autocratic leader stands firm against widening NATO airstrikes and rebels with growing international backing.
A Libyan government spokesman appealed for a ceasefire and said authorities were likely to release four foreign reporters held in a Tripoli after they face trial in an administrative court, expected later Tuesday.
NATO has stepped up strikes on Tripoli in an apparent attempt to weaken Gaddafi’s chief stronghold and potentially target the leader himself. One of the buildings hit early Tuesday was used by the Interior Ministry which is responsible for internal security.
Government escorts took reporters from their hotel to the site of the overnight airstrikes. Smoke and flames engulfed the top floors of the Interior Ministry building as dozens of young men, many of them armed with assault rifles, milled outside the shuttered gate early Tuesday. Some of the men carried a life-sized portrait of Gaddafi, danced before the burning building and chanted: “The revolution will continue!”
Nearby, black smoke poured out of a complex that officials said included offices used by authorities overseeing corruption cases. Soldiers collected half-burnt papers strewn amid the smashed glass and twisted metal as fire fighters sprayed water on the flames.
Moussa Ibrahim, the Libyan spokesman suggested the ministry was targeted because it contained files on rebel leaders in Benghazi, the de-facto capital of the eastern half of the country, which is under opposition control.
“If they (NATO) are really interested in protecting civilians … then we call upon them to stop and start talking to us,” Ibrahim said.
After the airstrikes, sporadic gunfire could be heard near the Tripoli hotel where reporters are staying. Police closed off a road nearby but the reason for the gunfire wasn’t clear.
Libyan TV said NATO airstrikes also hit Tajoura, a neighborhood in Tripoli, and Zawiya, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the capital. State TV said a number of people were killed and wounded. It did not elaborate.
Earlier, at least three explosions believed caused by NATO strikes shook windows around the Libyan capital late Monday. It was not immediately clear what was targeted, but Ibrahim said he believed the jets were aiming for Gaddafi’s compound.
The international warrants could further isolate Gaddafi and his inner circle and potentially complicate the options for a negotiated settlement. But they also could harden Gaddafi’s resolve to stand and fight, since the legal action has been seen in Libya as giving NATO more justification to go after him.
Because the U.N. Security Council ordered the ICC investigation, U.N. member states would be obliged to arrest him if he ventured into their territory.
In the Netherlands, prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said on Monday he was seeking warrants against Gaddafi, his son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi for ordering, planning and participating in illegal attacks. The younger Gaddafi has become one of the public faces of the regime through frequent interviews with the media.
Moreno-Ocampo said he had evidence that Gaddafi’s forces attacked civilians in their homes, shot at demonstrators with live ammunition, shelled funeral processions and deployed snipers to kill people leaving mosques. Judges must now evaluate the evidence before deciding whether to confirm the charges and issue international arrest warrants.
In Benghazi, rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga said the rebels welcomed the ICC case, saying however, that the opposition would like to see Gaddafi tried first in Libya, then before the world body.
Under Gaddafi’s more than four decades in power, the regime “has committed many crimes against the Libyan people, and the Libyan people want to see him punished for that,” Ghoga said.