BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — NATO launched its most intense bombardment yet against Moammar Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli Tuesday, while a senior U.S. diplomat said President Barack Obama has invited the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council to open an office in Washington D.C.
The international community has been stepping up airstrikes and diplomatic efforts against the regime in a bid to break a virtual stalemate, with the rebels in the east and Gadhafi maintaining his hold on most of the west.
The NATO airstrikes hit in rapid succession within a half-hour time span, setting off more than 20 explosions and sending up plumes of acrid-smelling smoke from an area around Gadhafi's sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound in central Tripoli.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said at least three people were killed and dozens wounded in NATO strikes that targeted what he described as buildings used by volunteer units of the Libyan army.
NATO said in a statement that a number of precision-guided weapons hit a vehicle storage facility adjacent to Bab al-Aziziya that has been used to supply regime forces "conducting attacks on civilians." It was not immediately clear if the facility was the only target hit in the barrage. Bab al-Aziziya, which includes a number of military facilities, has been pounded repeatedly by NATO strikes.
The U.S. launched the international air campaign on March 19 after the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution to protect civilians after Gadhafi sent his forces to crush a the public uprising against his rule. NATO, which has taken over the airstrikes, says it has been doing its best to minimize the risk of collateral damage.
The alliance has been escalating and widening the scope of its strikes over the past weeks, hiking the pressure on Gadhafi, while many countries have built closer ties with the rebel movement that has control of the eastern half of Libya.
In a significant new deployment of firepower, France and Britain are bringing attack helicopters to use in the strikes in Libya as soon as possible, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said Monday.
The use of attack helicopters would appear to mark a new strategy for NATO, which has seen Gadhafi's forces adapt, often turning to urban fighting to make such strikes by fighter planes more difficult.
Nimble, low-flying helicopters have much more leeway to pick targets with precision than jets. But they also are much more vulnerable to ground fire. The alliance has had no military deaths since it first started enforcing a no-fly zone on March 31.
Several countries, including France and Italy, have recognized the NTC, while the United States, the European Union and others have established a diplomatic presence in Benghazi.
Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, stopped short of formally recognizing the council in his remarks Tuesday, but said it was credible voice of the Libyans.
"We are not talking to Gadhafi and his people. They are not talking to us. They have lost legitimacy. We are dealing with people that we consider to be legitimate and representative and credible," Feltman told reporters during a visit to the de-facto rebel capital of Benghazi.
Feltman also said he expects Congress to vote soon to let frozen regime assets in the U.S. be used for purely humanitarian aid in Libya.
He praised the NTC for its emphasis on freeing Libya and for adhering to the Geneva conventions to protect human rights, which he called a sharp contrast to the position taken by Gadhafi's regime.
He said that the U.S. has given $53.5 million to address the humanitarian crisis in Libya, emphasizing that the money is going toward "non-lethal" aid.
Rebel leaders welcome the diplomatic contact, but say only better weapons will help them defeat Gadhafi.
"It is just not enough to recognize (us) and visit the liberated areas," spokesman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga told AP. "We have tried very hard to explain to them that we need the arms, we need funding, to be able to bring this to a successful conclusion at the earliest possible time and with the fewest humanitarian costs possible."
Rebels now control the populated coastal strip in the country's east and the western port city of Misrata, which Gadhafi's forces have besieged for months. They also control pockets in Libya's western Nafusa mountain range.
Hadid reported from Tripoli.