TRIPOLI, Libya— Provoked by renewed daylight NATO bombing of his capital, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi raged against the alliance Friday, screaming his message and daring Western forces to keep it up.
Gadhafi spoke in a telephone call that was piped through loudspeakers to a few thousand people demonstrating in Tripoli’s Green Square, at the end of a day when NATO intensified bombing runs across the capital. State television carried the Gadhafi message live, then repeated it a few minutes later.
“NATO will be defeated,” he yelled in a hoarse, agitated voice. “They will pull out in defeat.”
The sound of automatic weapons being fired defiantly into the air echoed through the square for hours as carloads of pro-Gadhafi supporters — many with children in tow — crammed the streets leading to the plaza. Although there was a large presence of police and soldiers in the square, many of those popping off rounds wore civilian clothes.
Protesters and foreign journalists in the capital said it was one of the biggest such demonstrations since airstrikes began.
“Everyone in Libya wants Col. Gadhafi, not some traitors,” Rajab Hamman, a 51-year-old engineer from Tripoli, said in the square as another demonstrator shot a magazine load of automatic rifle fire into the air a few steps away. “These are the real, true Libyans,” he said of the crowd.
East of Tripoli, meanwhile, Gadhafi’s forces exchanged intense shelling with rebels who are slowly breaking the government siege on their western stronghold, the port city of Misrata.
Doctors at the Hikma hospital in Misrata said nine rebel fighters and a woman living near the battle were killed and 30 others were wounded. Government casualties were not known.
Barrages of artillery and Grad missiles were landing on rebel lines as they continued trying to advance out of Misrata, 125 miles, east of the capital. The heaviest shelling rained down between the towns of Dafniya and Zlitan, west of the Mediterranean port. Rebels were holding their own with return fire from their front about 20 miles west of the port.
For weeks rebels had been bottled up in Misrata, one of a handful of toeholds they hold in western Libya. The eastern third of the country is under rebel control from their de facto capital, Benghazi. As NATO warplanes began stepping up attacks on Libyan government forces, bases and ammunition depots in recent days, the rebels in Misrata used the distraction to start their push out of the city toward Tripoli. Fighting has been intense along that front, with the rebels only able to advance about 20 miles.
NATO attacked the Libyan capital at midday Friday, pounding a target in the south of the city and sending a thick cloud of black smoke rising high into the air.
A series of explosions rumbled across other parts of the city as fighter jets could by heard flying overhead. Fire engines raced through the streets, sirens blaring.
It wasn’t clear what was hit or whether there were casualties. Friday is the main day of rest in Libya, with many people off work.
NATO has been ramping up the pressure on Gadhafi’s regime. Though most airstrikes happen under cover of darkness, daytime raids have grown more frequent.
Friday’s raids followed a barrage that struck multiple targets late Thursday night.
In his outburst, Gadhafi made a spitting sound and labeled as cowards the rebels fighting to oust him and those politicians and soldiers who had defected from Gadhafi’s cause. He called the rebels “sons of dogs,” a particularly cutting epithet in the Arab world.
And he said the people of Benghazi, the rebel capital, were existing on money from the “donkeys of Qatar, and the donkeys of the Gulf.” The rebels are receiving support from Arab nations in the Persian Gulf.
Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi accused NATO of a “new level of aggression” over the past 72 hours in which he said the military alliance intentionally targeted civilian buildings, including a hotel and a university.
“It has become clear to us that NATO has moved on to deliberately hitting civilian buildings. ... This is a crime against humanity,” he told reporters in the capital.
Libya’s Health Ministry released new casualty figures that put the number of civilians killed in NATO airstrikes through June 7 at 856. There was no way to independently verify the figure and previous government-announced tolls from individual strikes have proven to be exaggerated.
As the new NATO airstrikes Friday blasted the capital, alliance Wing Commander Mike Bracken said Gadhafi’s future at the helm of Libya was what he called a “political decision.” Mr. Bracken spoke by video conference to reporters in Brussels, NATO headquarters.
A coalition including France, Britain, and the United States launched the first strikes against Gadhafi’s forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It’s joined by a number of Arab allies.
In Brussels, NATO spokesman Oana Lungescu said there were no indications Gadhafi would stop attacking the opposition.
“It is hard to imagine the end to attacks on civilians while the pro-Gadhafi regime is still in power,” Ms. Lungescu said in Brussels. “It is unfortunately still the case that pro-Gadhafi forces continue to show shocking determination to harm the Libyan people.”
What started as a peaceful uprising inside Libya against Gadhafi has grown into a civil war, with rebels now holding a third of the country in the east and pockets in the west.
Libya’s rebels mark Feb. 17 — four months ago Friday — as the start of their revolution against Gadhafi’s more than four-decade rule
It was on that date that protesters emboldened by Arab uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets in a number of Libyan cities. At least 20 people were reported killed in a crackdown by state security forces.
Fighting between government forces and the rebels had reached a stalemate until last week when NATO launched the heaviest bombardment of Gadhafi forces since the alliance took control of the skies over Libya.