NATO Unleashes Intense Air Strike On Tripoli

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Tripoli was hit by one of the most intense air raids so far, as NATO seems to be trying to torque up the pressure on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. France is sending attack helicopters to the region, and the French foreign minister says the mission will achieve its objective within "a few months." In rebel-held Benghazi, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman pledges support — but not diplomatic recognition — for the rebels' provisional government, which is digging in for what increasingly looks like a longer "transition" than they'd hoped.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

NATO warplanes bombed Tripoli again last night in what some describe as the alliance's most intensive air raid so far. NATO says it was aiming at a vehicle storage facility. Libyan officials say the attack killed three civilians.

As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, NATO is turning up the pressure on Moammar Gadhafi, even as the alliance and Libyan rebels are coming to terms with the possibility that the conflict may drag on.

MARTIN KASTE: The eastern city of Benghazi is the Libyan rebels' de facto capital. And today, it hosted the senior U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman.

Mr. JEFFREY FELTMAN (Assistant Secretary of State): The people in the United States, and indeed across the world, are inspired by the Libyans' courage and efforts to build a unified, democratic Libya that respects the rights of all of its citizens.

KASTE: Feltman repeated the administration's position that Moammar Gadhafi must leave power, but he didn't want to discuss the specifics of NATO's airstrikes.

Mr. FELTMAN: I need to refer you to NATO for information on NATO strikes. But I think you can see by what's happening that NATO remains committed to striking command and control centers, to finding ways to protect the Libyan people. And the NATO methods, the NATO frequency of strikes are based on NATO's calculations of how best to fulfill its mission.

KASTE: In a letter to Congress last Friday, the White House said the U.S. is, quote, "no longer in the lead of the NATO mission."

If any country is in the lead, it's France. It was the first to bomb Gadhafi's troops two months ago. And now, it's raising the stakes again by sending attack helicopters to the region. The helicopters should allow more precise airstrikes, but they're also more vulnerable to ground fire, which risks drawing the alliance into closer combat with Libyan forces. And even the French are nervous about getting into a military quagmire.

Today, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told the French Parliament that the mission in Libya would not last longer than, quote, "a few months."

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: Here in Benghazi, the thought of another few months is hard to take. Nerves are fraying. This morning, kids in the street near the rebels' HQ were chattering about a shooting they'd just witnessed.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: A merchant, who's afraid of giving his name, also saw the attack.

Unidentified Man #4: (Through Translator) I saw a guy standing there close to the courthouse, firing at people. Why? I don't know.

KASTE: The man shot and injured two people outside the rebels' offices before he himself was shot and taken away.

The motive for the shooting is unknown, but Salwa al-Dagil(ph), a member of the rebels' National Transitional Council, believes pro-Gadhafi sleeper cells are a real threat.

Ms. SALWA AL-DAGIL (Member, National Transitional Council): (Foreign language spoken)

KASTE: They're capable of anything because they want the regime to survive forever, she says.

With Gadhafi clinging to power longer than anyone here expected, al-Dagil says the rebel government now realizes it needs to get more serious about combating what people here call Gadhafi's fifth column. She says the rebels are now arresting alleged spies and saboteurs and holding them in improvised prisons.

Martin Kaste, NPR news, Benghazi, Libya.

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