Rome: A Libyan rebel spokesman insisted on Friday that Muammar Gaddafi stand trial at the international war crimes tribunal, despite growing Western consensus that the longtime dictator be allowed to stay in his homeland if he relinquishes power.
NATO jet planes, meanwhile, struck the capital Tripoli near Gaddafi`s headquarters at Bab al-Aziziyah in the early hours of the morning Saturday.
Several bright flashes and loud explosions split the night at around 2:30 am local time while jets could be heard circling overhead.
NATO bombing raids and other military operations began this spring to protect civilians rebelling against the Libyan regime, but Gaddafi has managed to keep his grip on the capital, Tripoli, to the frustration of Western leaders.
NATO planes struck a factory near the embattled oil city of Brega on Friday killing six guards, Libyan officials said.
The plant, located six miles (10 kilometres) south of the strategic oil installation, builds the huge pipes that carry water from underground aquifers deep in the south to the coast as part of the Great Man Made River irrigation project.
"Major parts of the plant have been damaged," said Abdel-Hakim el-Shwehdy, head of the company running the project. "There could be major setback for the future projects."
At least 70 percent of Libyans survive on the water carried through the pipes to the coast in the project, according to government figures.
"Most Libyans drink from the Great Manmade River, most Libyan land is farmed from the water, so any harm against this vital project is a harm against all Libyans," warned government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim. "We believe this a very dangerous development in NATO`S attacks."
Washington, Paris and Rome have all proclaimed their acceptance of the idea that Gaddafi remain in Libya on the condition that he give up power and the Libyan people grant their approval.
In Rome, rebel spokesman Ali al-Issawi met with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
Asked how the so-called "leave Gaddafi in Libya option" squares with the warrant for his arrest by the International Criminal Court, al-Issawi told reporters that there was "no contradiction between the two”.
"The first principle is that Gaddafi should step down," al-Issawi, a leader of the rebels` executive office said after a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. "After that you can talk about the details."
"We would like Gaddafi to be taken to the ICC," al-Issawi said, referring to the Hague-based tribunal.
Al-Issawi`s office essentially serves as a Cabinet for the National Transitional Council, the Benghazi-based anti-Gaddafi front that was recently recognised by Washington as Libya`s legitimate government.
Frattini noted that Libya isn`t among the signatory countries to an agreement obligating arrest for such warrants, and he stressed that while "impunity (for Gaddafi) would be a mistake, it has to be the Libyans to decide" Gaddafi`s fate. Whatever that decision is, "we`ll respect it”, the foreign minister added.
Whether Western support to allow Libyans to keep Gaddafi in his country once out of power indicates waning desire to drive him out of Tripoli is unclear. There have been fears the civil warfare could end in a kind of stalemate, with the rebels in charge mainly in eastern Libya and Gaddafi`s forces entrenched in Tripoli.
Al-Issawi said that a blast at a Tripoli hotel Thursday where several top members of the regime, including Gaddafi`s son Saif al-Islam, were meeting was caused by a rocket launched from within the city.
"This is a good signal that people inside Tripoli are organising" against Gaddafi, Frattini told reporters.
The rebel spokesman said the attack "severely wounded" Abdullah Mansour, apparently a high official in Gaddafi`s inner circle.
A Tripoli-based opposition group called the Free Generation Movement said in a statement that three rocket-propelled grenades were used to attack the hotel.
However, the government spokesman, Ibrahim, denied any attack had occurred, saying it was only an accident turned into a propaganda ploy by rebels.
"There was no attack yesterday whatsoever, there was an explosion near the Sheraton caused by a (cooking) gas cylinder," said. "It was a kitchen explosion that was immediately turned into an attack to boost (rebel) morale."
Libya, a major supplier of oil and natural gas to Italy, was Rome`s biggest trading partner before the outbreak of civil war, and al-Issawi assured Frattini that Italy would regain that rank in Libya`s future.
"We invite all the Italian companies in Libya to restart their activities," al-Issawi told reporters.
Among those eager to return to full operations is Italian energy company Eni, which the Libyan government has banned from operating in Libya due to Italy`s participation in the NATO attacks.
Frattini delivered some good news to the rebel`s political arm. He said that within days, the first tranche of EUR 350 million (USD 503 million) in cash and fuel would be transferred to Benghazi to help civilians there, while Italy and other countries wait for UN sanctions officials to free up billions of dollars in frozen Gaddafi regime assets.