Tripoli gets heaviest NATO pounding yet

Heavy pounding

Loud explosions rocked Tripoli overnight as NATO unleashed its heaviest blitz yet of the capital in a bid to speed up the ouster of Libyan leader Moamer Gathafi as rebels gained diplomatic ground.
Six powerful explosions struck late Tuesday near the Gathafi's residence, targeted a day earlier by intensive NATO air strikes, an AFP journalist said.
Jet fighters could be heard above before three deafening explosions rocked the area of the embattled leader's Bab Al-Aziziya residential compound around 11:00 pm (2100 GMT), followed by three others two minutes later.
The zone came under heavy bombardment overnight Monday lasting more than half an hour, leaving three dead and 150 wounded, according to the Gathafi regime.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim insisted those strikes targeted a deserted military barracks but instead hit civilians living nearby.
NATO rejected the charge, saying that a strategic vehicle storage facility -- used to resupply the regime forces and instrumental in attacks against civilians -- had been struck.
The Western alliance is shifting into high gear in Libya in a bid to deliver a decisive blow against Gathafi's government, hitting Tripoli with its heaviest bombardment to date.
"The regime has become very apathetic in the last 15 days. It has lost the military initiative and appears on the defensive, which is a sign that we are on the right path," a senior NATO military official said.
"We think that we must speed up and increase the tempo of our operations to let the fruit drop on its own," the official said, adding that allies hoped Gathafi will fall by late June or early July.
After three months of fighting, however, the regime remains entrenched in much of the west, including the capital Tripoli.
Worried about getting bogged down in an endless stalemate, NATO allies, who were divided over going into Libya in the first place and face budgetary constraints, have no choice but to increase the pressure, the official said.
More than 15 powerful blasts were heard for more than half an hour in Bab al-Aziziya in a pre-dawn raid Tuesday, as warplanes roared overhead.
A further three explosions were heard in the garrison town of Tajura, east of the capital, during the afternoon, residents said.
Plumes of smoke rose over the Mediterranean seaside town but witnesses were not immediately able to identify the target.
In another boost to forces fighting to oust Gathafi, France said this week it would provide attack helicopters for NATO's air campaign, while the EU widened sanctions against Gathafi's forces. Britain denied reports it was also providing helos, saying the idea was still under consideration.
The helicopters, a weapon that has yet to be used by NATO in Libya, will help the western alliance strike regime military assets hidden in urban areas while avoiding civilian casualties.
Top US official Jeffrey Feltman said Libya's rebels have accepted an invitation to open a representative office in Washington, but he stopped short of granting the National Transitional Council (NTC) official recognition.
"This step is an important milestone... and we are happy they accepted it," he added during a visit to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
Feltman, the highest ranking US official to visit the rebel stronghold of Benghazi since its people revolted against Gathafi in mid-February, noted the council was in fact already the only representative of the country in Washington. He also renewed US calls for Gathafi to step down immediately.
Britain, France, Gambia, Italy and Qatar have already recognised the rebel council as their sole interlocutor in Libya.
Jordan, meanwhile, said it recognises the NTC as the "legitimate representative" of the Libyan people and intends to appoint an envoy to Benghazi.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has opened an EU office in Benghazi and declared the 27-member bloc's "long-term support" to the rebels.
Meanwhile, fighting at a refugee camp near the Tunisia-Libya border left two people dead, while a blaze injured seven others, a source close to the defence ministry said.
Two Eritreans were killed when stones were thrown during a clash with other refugees at the Choucha camp seven kilometres (four miles) from the border, the source said.
Another seven, whose nationality is not known, were injured in a fire started by the Eritreans which destroyed 200 tents.
Thousands of people have fled to the camp since violence broke out in neighbouring Libya in February.