TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Crowds chanting support for Muammar Gaddafi gathered in Tripoli on Monday for the funeral of his son, killed in a NATO airstrike that has raised questions about the West’s role in the uprising against the Libyan leader.
Gaddafi’s forces halted their bombardment of the port in the rebel-held city of Misrata after NATO air strikes, but the port remained closed, a rebel spokesman told Reuters, thwarting efforts to bring supplies in by sea to the besieged city.
NATO planes also struck overnight on positions held by Libyan government forces near the rebel-held town of Zintan.
The developments highlighted the reliance of the faltering rebel movement on military backing from the West. But Saturday’s NATO air raid on a Gaddafi compound, which the government says killed his 29-year-old son Saif al-Arab and three young grandchildren, added a new twist.
The announcement of the deaths triggered attacks by angry crowds on the British and French embassies and the U.S. diplomatic mission in Tripoli, and accusations from the Libyan officials that NATO had been trying to assassinate Gaddafi.
About 2,000 people carrying flags and pictures of Gaddafi turned out for the funeral. They pumped their fists in the air and vowed to avenge the death of Saif al-Arab.
“We are all with Gaddafi’s Libya,” read one placard.
Saif al-Arab’s coffin, covered in flowers and wrapped in the green flag that has represented Libya since Gaddafi took power in a 1969 coup, was carried through the crowds to the grave at Hani cemetery in the Libyan capital.
Gaddafi did not appear to be at the funeral but Saif al-Islam, the most prominent of his seven sons, attended along with his elder half-brother Mohammed.
Saif al-Arab had no children but three of his nieces and nephews, all of them under three years old, were killed in Saturday’s blast, the government says. They were the children of Saif al-Arab’s siblings Hannibal, Aisha and Mohammed Gaddafi.
Despite denials from Western leaders that the air raid was an assassination attempt on Gaddafi, it has provoked renewed debate on whether the British and French-led strikes are exceeding a United Nations mandate to protect civilians.
South Africa, which has led an African peace plan, condemned the attack and said the U.N. resolution which authorised air strikes did not cover the assassination of individuals.
“The attacks on leaders and officials can only result in the escalation of tensions and conflicts on all sides and make future reconciliation difficult,” it said in a statement.
Britain’s Independent newspaper said it was a strategic error and gave the impression that the conflict was a confrontation between Gaddafi and the West.
“They leave the Libyan opposition looking helpless on the sidelines. That turns an internal revolt against a vicious dictator into another Western military adventure,” it said.
The Times, however, said NATO must step up its attacks on command and control centres despite the risks: “This is a war that cannot be allowed to drag on.”
Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister said Saturday’s attack was the fourth attempt on Gaddafi’s life. NATO jets struck near the state television earlier the same day, as Gaddafi gave what was billed as a live address in which he called for peace. The image flickered with each blast and Gaddafi left abruptly at the end, taking off his microphone and walking out as the camera rolled.
News that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces in a raid in Pakistan on Monday may also give the Gaddafi camp pause for thought.
Libyan officials had no comment on the bin Laden killing but a rebel spokesman said Gaddafi should face the same fate.
“We are very happy and we are waiting for the next step. We want the Americans to do the same to Gaddafi,” Colonel Ahmed Bani said in Benghazi.
Misrata, which has become a bloody symbol of resistance to the leader, was subjected to renewed bombardments early on Monday, but a rebel spokesman said these ceased after NATO air strikes.
“There were strikes by NATO on the outskirts of the city today at around midday (1000 GMT),” the spokesman, called Reda, told Reuters by telephone. “The port is still closed. Gaddafi’s forces bombarded it earlier today. The bombardment has now stopped.”
Rocket barrages hit the port area on Sunday as an aid ship was trying to unload. Libyan state television said it was shelled to stop NATO from delivering weapons to the insurgents.
“Shelling the port is disastrous for us because it will sabotage all the humanitarian aid we are getting,” rebel spokesman Ahmed Hassan said. “God help us if this happens.”
An aid ship was still waiting off the coast of Misrata for bombing to stop and mines to be cleared before it tried to deliver supplies and evacuate some 1,000 foreigners and wounded Libyans, the International Organisation for Migration said.
“We will wait until Tuesday noon,” IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy told Reuters in Geneva. “We are still hoping that things will improve.”
At least one mine was still visible between the ship and the port, he said.
Rights groups say hundreds of people, including many civilians, have been killed in Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli. Officials in Tripoli deny targeting civilians, and say they are fighting armed gangs and al Qaeda sympathisers.
The frontline in eastern Libya has been static west of the town of Ajdabiyah for a week with government troops digging in and rebels attempting to train and regroup.
On the other side of the country, Libyan government forces are fighting to dislodge rebels from the Western Mountains after they seized control last month of the Dehiba-Wazin crossing, opening a passage for food, fuel and medicine.