BENGHAZI, Libya — NATO has found no evidence to support claims by the Libyan government that an airstrike in Tripoli killed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's youngest son and three grandchildren, two military officials told McClatchy Sunday.
What the Libyan government called a residence — where Gadhafi's son, Saif al Arab, and three grandchildren were residing when the structure was struck Saturday night — was, in fact, a command and control center with a bunker underneath, the NATO and U.S. officials said on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about NATO's findings.
The officials also rejected suggestions that the attack targeted Gadhafi. Regime officials said that Gadhafi and his wife were at the Tripoli home of their son, when the airstrike took place; both escaped unharmed.
"We have seen no evidence of civilian casualties," the NATO official said. "We do not target individuals and have no real way of knowing who is inside."
The officials said they couldn't say the regime was lying, simply that they couldn't confirm the claims. Privately, however, officials at the Pentagon suggested that the regime claimed that civilians and children died by a NATO strike to divide an already conflicted international community over its effort here. In Benghazi, the rebel capital, residents were dubious, noting that Gadhafi has said family members have died at the world community's hands before.
After the U.S. attacked the regime's military headquarters in 1986, Gadhafi said his adopted daughter had been killed. Even now, Libyans aren't certain whether that's true.
Regardless, the effects of the airstrike reverberated around the world, as Libyan officials showed the body of one of the dead and the international community debated whether NATO's air campaign was within the legal guidelines of the United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force to protect Libyan civilians.
NATO refused to say what kind of aircraft was involved in Saturday's attack, saying it didn't want to link the attack to one country.
Western officials have been divided in recent weeks over whether Gadhafi is a legitimate military target under the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized the air campaign to protect civilians. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week that NATO was "not targeting Gadhafi specifically" but that his command-and-control facilities — including a facility inside his sprawling Tripoli compound that was hit with airstrikes last Monday — were legitimate targets.
On Sunday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday's attack "arouses serious doubts about coalition members' statement that the strikes in Libya do not have the goal of physically annihilating (Gadhafi) and members of his family."
Russia abstained from the U.N. vote to authorize the NATO mission and has been one of its loudest critics.
The Obama administration is said to believe that killing Gadhafi under the current conditions would exceed the U.N. mandate.
In an effort to answer skeptics, Libyan state television Sunday showed one adult body covered by the Libyan green flag and surrounded by praying mourners. But the face remained covered; either way, seeing a body isn't enough for most Libyans, as most have never seen Gadhafi's youngest son.
Saif al Arab, 29, was considered the least problematic of Gadhafi's immediate family; he had no ties to the Libyan government or military.
Meanwhile, rebel council president Mustafa Abdel Jalil asked the residents of Tripoli to join them in their effort to overthrow the regime, noting that Gadhafi was losing control during an appearance on the Al Jazeera news channel.
By midday Sunday, there was smoke coming out of the Italian embassy building in Tripoli, and the British embassy also reported coming under attack. Both attacks appeared to be in retaliation for both Saturday's airstrike in Tripoli and the ongoing strikes in the besieged western city of Misrata.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague Sunday gave the Libyan ambassador to Britain 24 hours to leave the country.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011