BENGHAZI, Libya — A NATO airstrike reportedly narrowly missed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi Saturday night, killing his youngest son and three grandchildren instead, according to a government spokesman, marking the coalition's most aggressive effort to end the regime.
That NATO forces may have killed four members of Gadhafi's family who had no ties to the government or military will likely renew questions about the legality and legitimacy of the international effort here, sanctioned by a United Nations resolution to protect civilians from a Gadhafi attack.
Throughout the month-long air campaign, NATO members who abstained from the resolution vote have said they were concerned that resolution was instead a subversive attempt by the U.S. and Europe to topple the regime. China called the strikes a violation of international law; Russia, India and Turkey have also condemned various NATO strikes here.
Regime officials said that Gadhafi and his wife were at the Tripoli home of their son, Saif al Arab, 29, Saturday when strike took place, but both escaped unharmed. In addition to Saif al Arab, three of Gadhafi's grandsons were killed, a government spokesman said.
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Speaking to reporters in Tripoli, Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said that the airstrike showed that the NATO campaign had "no moral foundation, no legal foundation, and no political foundation."
It isn't certain that the reports of the deaths are true. NATO officials didn't confirm the regime's claims, and Pentagon officials declined to comment. And the regime has made false reports in the past about attacks.
Saying only that "we do not target individuals," NATO spokesman Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard called the strike part of its effort to protect Libyan civilians.
"We regret all loss of life, especially the innocent civilians being harmed as a result of the ongoing conflict," he said. "NATO is fulfilling its U.N. mandate to stop and prevent attacks against civilians with precision and care."
A NATO spokesman declined to answer whether the missile might have been fired by a U.S. drone aircraft. "As a general rule, we do not link any specific nation, aircraft, or munition to individual strikes; that policy applies in this case," the spokesman said in an email.
That NATO officials had possibly struck Gadhafi's family members excited Libyan rebels, who thus far haven't been able to break Gadhafi's hold on the capital since the uprising began more than two months ago.
In Benghazi, the rebel capital, the city erupted into an hour-long revelry that sounded much like warfare. Residents set off bombs, anti-aircraft weapons, gunfire, tracer fire and explosives into the air and honked their horns. But the signals of joy were clear: Amid the sounds, rose cheers from residents who ran out into the streets to celebrate even as fireballs shot up into the sky.
Meanwhile, on Libyan state television, commentators mourned Saif al Arab and spoke of all the ways the regime would survive what they described as a unjust act, all while solemn music played in the background.
Saif al Arab was considered the least problematic of Gadhafi's immediate family; he had no ties to the Libyan government or military. U.S. diplomats described Saif al Arab as a "ne'er-do-well" and "the least publicly known of Gadhafi's children" in a confidential March 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, released by WikiLeaks.
In another March 2009 cable, U.S. officials said that he "reportedly spends most of his time in Munich, where he is involved in ill-defined business pursuits and spends much of his time partying."
Saif al Arab is different from his older brother Saif al Islam, Gadhafi's heir apparent and a most recognizable defender of his father's effort to stay in power.
Western officials have been divided in recent weeks over whether Gadhafi is a legitimate military target under the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the air campaign to protect civilians. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that NATO was "not targeting Gadhafi specifically" but that his command-and-control facilities — including a facility inside his sprawling Tripoli compound that was hit with airstrikes last Monday — were legitimate targets.
The Obama administration is said to believe that killing Gadhafi under the current conditions would exceed the U.N. mandate.
U.S. officials rejected an assertion last month by Gates' British counterpart, Liam Fox, who said that assassinating Gadhafi was "potentially a possibility." British Prime Minister David Cameron said that coalition forces didn't have the legal authority to do so.
Earlier Saturday, NATO officials and opposition leaders rejected the latest ceasefire offer from Gadhafi, delivered in a rambling speech broadcast on state television in the predawn hours Saturday, in which the Libyan leader said he was ready for a truce, but only if NATO halted its attacks.
Gadhafi was defiant as usual, saying that he and his family would never leave Libya. NATO officials said that Gadhafi had violated all his previous ceasefire pledges and called it a ploy.
Libya's rebel council issued a statement saying that Gadhafi's regime had lost all credibility.
"The time for compromise has passed," said Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the council spokesman. "The people of Libya cannot possibly envisage or accept a future Libya in which Gadhafi's regime plays any role."
(Youssef reported from Benghazi, Libya. Bengali reported from Tunis, Tunisia.)
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