NATO pounds Tripoli, ponders post-Qaddafi Libya

Foreign journalists gather outside of Rixos hotel as plume of smoke rises in the sky in Tripoli, Libya, on June 9, 2011. AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev

TRIPOLI, Libya - NATO airstrikes rattled the Libyan capital Thursday with clusters of bombing runs believed to have targeted the outskirts of Tripoli as senior officials started planning for a post-Qaddafi Libya.

The intensity of the attacks suggested a return to the heavy NATO bombardment of the city that on Tuesday hit military installations across the capital and flattened major buildings in leader Muammar Qaddafi's sprawling compound in the center of the city. Government officials did not say what had been targeted in the Thursday bombing runs.

There were eight explosions in a first series of strikes on Thursday. Hours later, the sound of six more attacks boomed in the distance.

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Despite it's inability so far to oust Qaddafi, NATO is preparing for a post-Qaddafi era in the country.

Senior representatives from the U.S. and more than 30 other countries and groups were meeting Thursday in the United Arab Emirates.

The officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, hope to boost support for the Libyan opposition, which has been seeking broad international recognition and financial support with mixed results.

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Libya's main opposition group appealed Thursday for urgent infusions of cash from foreign nations and said a meeting of countries backing NATO's military mission over the country would be a "total failure" if financial assistance was not forthcoming.

Italy and France offered a combined $1.02 billion while Kuwait and Qatar promised a combined $280 million to a fund set up to provide transparent assistance to the opposition.

The total pledged at the gathering, while significant, fell short of the $3 billion the opposition group says it needs to survive for just the next four months. The council lamented that the world still does not understand the needs of the Libyan people after months of violence.

Clinton disappointed the rebel-affiliated group by saying that while Washington would boost its humanitarian aid to all Libyans by $26.5 million it is not offering any direct aid to the council.

But Australia and the United States also recognized the Transitional National Council as "the legitimate interlocuter" for the Libyan people, moving a shade closer to conferring formal recognition on the body that could lift hurdles to additional money.

Meanwhile, Clinton said Thursday that she is aware of "numerous and continuing" overtures by people close to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to negotiate his departure from power.

Speaking to reporters after an international conference on Libya in the United Arab Emirates, Clinton said proposals from "people close to Qaddafi" presented to unspecified countries included the "potential for a transition." But she said she could not predict if they would be accepted. She did, however, stress that she believed Qaddafi's decades-long rule is nearing an end.

The U.S. on Wednesday said the first shipment of Libyan oil sold by the opposition Transitional National Council had been delivered to an American refinery. The U.S. is encouraging such sales to help the council assist the Libyan people.

Libya's former U.N. ambassador Abdurraham Mohamed Shalgham attended the Dubai gather as a senior official of the rebels' National Council. He said NATO should focus more strikes on Qaddafi forces around Misrata to help "the youth freedom fighters to move toward the capital Tripoli." Shalgham said he believed Qaddafi was in the final days of his rule.

"I think our youth will be in Tripoli in some weeks," Shalgham said.

Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado said on Thursday that Lisbon soon would recognize the rebel administration.

"This decision will be taken soon ... because that is the way international approach is heading," Amado told the national news agency Lusa in Lisbon. A Portuguese diplomatic delegation is due to visit Benghazi in coming days.

Also on Thursday, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade visited Benghazi to meet with the Council's leaders. He urged Qaddafi to stop fighting and called for NATO to end airstrikes.

"I am someone who can help you (Qaddafi) to relieve yourself from political power," Wade told reporters in a message to the Libyan leader, stopping short of offering Senegal as a country of refuge.

NATO rejected any post-Qaddafi role for the alliance, saying it was imperative that the international community, the United Nations in particular, start preparations for helping the country's transition to a democratic government.

On Tuesday, NATO conducted its heaviest attacks on Tripoli since it began airstrikes two months ago in support of a rebel insurgency. The four-month old rebel uprising seeks to push Moammar Qaddafi from power after four decades. Rebels have taken control of swaths of eastern Libya, although fighting has since become a stalemate even with NATO support.

Qaddafi shows no signs of ceding power under the building pressure of the NATO strikes, despite repeated attacks on his compound, government buildings, military radar emplacements and other army installations.

Fighting on the ground between Libyan government forces and the rebels had largely died down after the NATO strikes began. The Western alliance took to the skies over Libya under a U.N. resolution that allowed NATO flights to protect rebel force. What began as a no-fly zone quickly evolved into strong attacks on the regime.

On Wednesday, however, Qaddafi forces renewed their shelling near the western city of Misrata, killing 10 rebel fighters. Misrata is one of the few footholds rebels have in western Libya. NATO reported it had destroyed a "electronic warfare vehicle" and military training camp in the vicinity of the city as government forces had renewed their assault on the port city.

In Brussels on Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the shelling near Misrata underscored the continued need to protect civilians.

"It is an example that the Qaddafi regime still constitutes a threat to the civilian population," he said. "We will stay committed as long as necessary," Fogh Rasmussen added.

The alliance enumerated a series of hits in and around Tripoli on Wednesday, including a surface-to-air missile site, a tank, four armored fighting vehicles and a command and control facility.

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