NATO denies Libya claim raids kill more civilians

Rumours have been rife in recent days that Muammar Gaddafi may consider leaving Tripoli.

Tripoli: NATO came under verbal fire again on Saturday from Muammar Gaddafi`s regime, which accused it of killing 15 more people in strikes on civilian sites in the eastern town of Brega, a claim promptly denied by the alliance.

Meanwhile, three powerful explosions struck the eastern Tripoli suburb of Tajura, where a number of military installations are located, and columns of smoke could be seen from the city centre, reports said.

It was not known if the blasts were the result of an attack by NATO, which has repeatedly targeted the area in the past.

And in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, a top official of the National Transitional Council (NTC) said rebels expect to receive an offer from Gaddafi "very soon" that could end the four-month-old war.

In the latest accusation against NATO, Libyan television said "the colonialist crusader Atlantic coalition bombed civilian sites, among them a bakery and a restaurant in Brega, creating 15 martyrs and more than 20 wounded, among them regular clients of those places."

Following the claim, a NATO spokesman said the alliance "did target buildings in an abandoned area of Brega. These were legitimate military targets that were hit”.

"We took a long time to watch the area and make sure. Meticulous planning went into this."

A NATO official said that "since midnight (2200 GMT on Friday), we have not struck any targets in Brega”, a key refinery town some 800 kilometres (500 miles) east of Tripoli and 240 kilometres southwest of Benghazi.

Separately, Operation Unified Protector`s military spokesman Mike Bracken said: "We take great care to avoid civilian casualties, and even at the last minute we will divert weapons to ensure civilians are not injured."

In London, British military spokesman Nick Pope said the attacks followed "sustained and intensive surveillance which had confirmed the use of the various buildings by regime troops and the absence of normal civilian patterns of life in the surrounding areas."

RAF Tornados had hit "a radar station, three command and control centres located in buildings which had been commandeered by the regime, and a warehouse complex used to stockpile military supplies”, he said.

In Benghazi, NTC vice chairman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said that intermediaries had indicated a proposal from the Libyan strongman was in the works and that the rebels would give it serious consideration if they received it.

"We expect to get an offer very soon; he is unable to breathe," said Ghoga.

"We want to preserve life, so we want to end the war as soon as possible. We have always left him some room for an exit."

Ghoga said the NTC understood through contacts with France and South Africa that a Gaddafi offer was being prepared.

"These are the countries chosen by the Gaddafi regime to present a proposal to the National Transitional Council, but we have not received anything to date."

"We will take a serious look at it," Ghoga said, while reiterating the NTC`s demands that any deal results in the removal of Gaddafi and his family from power and politics.

Rumours have been rife in recent days that Gaddafi may consider leaving Tripoli and that rebels could accept his internal exile to a remote location.

The rumours have been fuelled by a military deadlock on the ground and a steady trickle of defections from Gaddafi`s forces.

The rebels said on Saturday that 38 Gaddafi officers -- including six of high rank -- fled to Tunisia a day earlier.

But it remains to be seen if such a deal is just wishful thinking. So far efforts to reach a diplomatic end to the conflict have come to nothing.

In other developments, 17 of Libya`s top footballers, including national team goalkeeper Juma Gtat, have defected to the rebels, Ghoga said.

"These 17 members were on their way to Mali when they declared their defection."

The BBC earlier reported the defections, which also included three other national team players and the coach of Tripoli`s top club Al-Ahly, Adel bin Issa.

Gtat told the BBC: "I tell him (Gaddafi), leave us alone and leave the Libyan people (to) enjoy their life in new Libya, Libya for freedom."

And Issa said he wanted "to send a message that Libya should be unified and free”, adding that he hoped "to wake up one morning to find that Gaddafi is no longer there”.

Bureau Report

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