, TRIPOLI, May 20 – NATO-led aircraft hit eight vessels of Moamer Kadhafi\’s navy late Thursday as US President Barack Obama predicted the veteran Libyan strongman would "inevitably" leave or be forced from power.
The authorities in Tripoli described the US president\’s comments as "delusional" and strongly denied reports that Kadhafi\’s wife and daughter had fled to Tunisia and that Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem had defected.
"NATO and coalition air assets continued their precision air strikes against pro-Kadhafi regime forces overnight with a coordinated strike against pro-Kadhafi forces in the ports of Tripoli, Al-Khums and Sirte," the Western alliance said.
"Overnight, NATO aircraft hit pro-Kadhafi warships, striking eight vessels," it added.
"Given the escalating use of naval assets, NATO had no choice but to take decisive action to protect the civilian population of Libya and NATO forces at sea," said Rear Admiral Russell Harding, deputy commander of the NATO-led air war.
Fresh explosions were heard in the Libyan capital early Friday, hours after the air strikes targeted the city\’s port, with a ship still ablaze from the raid.
An AFP journalist, part of a group sent by the authorities to a bridge about a kilometre (less than a mile) from the port, was unable to determine whether the blazing ship was a military or civilian vessel.
Harding insisted that all of the targets hit were military but Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim accused the Western alliance of seeking to scare international shipping firms into steering clear of government-held ports.
"Whatever the ship that has been hit, it is clearly a message sent by NATO to the international maritime companies not to send any more vessels to Libya," Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli.
The spokesman described as "delusional" Obama\’s prediction in a keynote speech on US Middle East policy of the Libyan leader\’s inevitable demise.
"Obama is still delusional — he believes the lies that his own government and own media spread around the world," Ibrahim said.
"It\’s not Obama who decides whether Moamer Kadhafi leaves Libya or not. It\’s the Libyan people who decide their future," he added.
In a major speech responding to the protest movements sweeping the Arab world, Obama had said: "Time is working against Kadhafi.
"He does not have control over his country. The opposition has organised a legitimate and credible interim council," Obama said of the rebels\’ National Transitional Council based in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
"And when Kadhafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed."
Obama\’s remarks were welcomed by the vice chairman of the rebel administration, Abdul Hafiz Ghoga.
"We welcome the statements made regarding the legitimacy of the body of the National Transitional Council," Ghoga said in Benghazi.
"We look forward to further support from the United States and the international community to help us further develop our democratic aspirations and for the development of our people."
In Tripoli, the government spokesman denied reports that Kadhafi\’s wife and daughter had fled to Tunisia and that the oil minister had defected.
The Libyan leader\’s wife Sofia "is fine, in good health and she is in Tripoli," Ibrahim said, without referring specifically to statements to the contrary by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His daughter Aisha "is also in Tripoli," Ibrahim added. "They have not left the country."
The spokesman said the oil minister was on a mission in Tunisia which would be followed by a European tour and then a visit to Egypt.
"From what we know, he is continuing to work, he\’s still a Libyan official," Ibrahim said.
Press reports had said the oil minister had defected. If confirmed, Ghanem would be among the most senior officials to abandon Kadhafi\’s government since the revolt erupted.
Meanwhile, the family of South African photographer Anton Hammerl, missing in Libya for six weeks, revealed that he had been shot dead by Kadhafi\’s forces on the front line between rebel-held eastern Libya and the mainly government-held west.
"Anton was shot by Kadhafi\’s forces in an extremely remote location in the Libyan desert," the Hammerl family said in a statement posted on Facebook.
"According to eyewitnesses, his injuries were such that he could not have survived without medical attention."
The Libyan government had for weeks said Hammerl, 41, was alive. Ibrahim had said on Tuesday that Hammerl would be among a group of four detained foreign journalists who were to be freed in Tripoli on Wednesday.
But on their release the other journalists said Hammerl had been killed when they came under attack by Kadhafi forces and were captured on April 5.