BENGHAZI, Libya, Aug 5 (Reuters) – – Libya’s rebels said on Friday a NATO air attack had killed Muammar Gaddafi’s powerful son Khamis, who serves as commander of one of the Libyan leader’s most loyal and best-equipped military units.
A rebel spokesman said the air strike had killed 32 people in Zlitan, a frontline town where Khamis Gaddafi’s 32nd Brigade is believed to have been leading the stand to defend the outskirts of Tripoli, 160 km (100 miles) away.
NATO was not able to confirm the report of Khamis Gaddafi’s death, and the Tripoli government was not immediately available to comment. NATO had said on Thursday that it hit a command-and-control target in the area.
If confirmed, the death of Khamis would be a severe blow to his father’s campaign to resist a six-month-old uprising and remain in power.
The brigade led by Khamis is seen as one of the most disciplined units in Libya and a central part of the government’s security apparatus.
A NATO official at operations headquarters in Naples said he was aware of reports Khamis had been killed but could not confirm it.
“We cannot confirm anything right now, because we don’t have people on the ground, but we are trying to find out what we can,” he said.
Khamis would be the second of Gaddafi’s sons reported killed since the uprising against his 41-year rule began in February. The government said earlier this year that a NATO strike on a house in Tripoli had killed Saif al-Arab Gaddafi and three of the Libyan leader’s grandchildren. Unlike Khamis, Saif al-Arab did not have a high public profile or a major leadership role.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said it had carried out air strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday against buildings, staging posts and a tank being used by Gaddafi forces near Zlitan, the next big town on the road from rebel-held Misrata to Tripoli .
Gaddafi has so far remained in control of the capital despite severe fuel shortages and rebel advances backed since March by Western air strikes. He has defied hopes in Western states of a swift exit, forcing them to await progress on political and military fronts.
The rebels face their own problems, from stalling battlefield momentum to internal splits, exposed starkly last week when their military chief Abdel Fattah Younes was killed in circumstances that have yet to be fully explained.
NATO HITS TARGET
On Thursday, on the western side of Zlitan, pro-Gaddafi officials showed journalists the bodies of two children they said had been killed in a NATO air strike earlier in the day.
There were no signs of military infrastructure. It was impossible for journalists to confirm the official account.
An official at NATO operational HQ in Naples said on Thursday: “We did hit a military target at around 6.30 this morning and it was a command-and-control site”.
“We always take seriously allegations of civilian casualties and are looking into it, but we have no evidence at this stage that this was caused by an air strike.”
A rebel spokesman in Zlitan named Mohammed said NATO had hit a location in the town used by Khamis al-Gaddafi “but we don’t know if he was there at the time and whether he was killed”.
“Today we heard a lot of fighting inside Zlitan. We heard light and heavy weapons. We know the revolutionaries were not involved. So it seems the fighting was internal — Gaddafi forces fighting against each another,” he said.
Rebels who cleared Gaddafi’s forces from Libya’s third largest city Misrata after weeks of intense fighting have been trying to push westwards and take Zlitan, which would open the coastal road toward his Tripoli stronghold.
Near the capital, they also control a mountainous region southwest of Tripoli. On a third front, in the mostly rebel-held east of the country, fighting has see-sawed between the town of Ajdabiyah and the oil port of Brega.