By JOE PARKINSON And SAM DAGHER
TRIPOLI, Libya—The North Atlantic Treaty Organization struck Tripoli with a series of air strikes early Thursday, as the alliance sought to build pressure on Colonel Moammar Gadhafi just hours after it extended its Libyan mission and another top official abandoned the regime.
Shortly after midnight local time, several blasts echoed across Tripoli. A NATO statement said the strikes hit a vehicle storage facility and a surface-to-air missile launcher in the capital and other targets, including ammunitions depots and radars, in other Gadhafi-held territory. Libyan government officials weren't available to offer information on the blasts.
The air strikes came shortly after NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday the organization and its partner countries agreed to extend its Libya mission for a further 90 days. "This decision sends a clear message to the Gadhafi regime: We are determined to continue our operation to protect the people of Libya," the Secretary-General said in Brussels.
NATO efforts to pressure Col. Gadhafi were boosted by news from Rome, where Libya's top oil official and former prime minister Shokri Ghanem on Wednesday announced his defection in a news conference complaining of "unbearable" violence against civilians and stressing that he backed "the choice of Libyan youth to create a modern constitutional state respecting human rights and building a better future for all Libyans."
Mr. Ghanem's whereabouts had been unknown for several days, and his defection had been widely expected, although he didn't say whether he would join the rebel leadership in Benghazi. But the announcement comes just two days after the defections of eight army officers, including five generals and those in earlier weeks of senior diplomats and former ministers, adding political momentum to the uprising against Col. Gadhafi's 41-year rule.
Mr. Ghanem also said oil production in Libya is coming to a halt and the territory controlled by Col. Gadhafi in the west faces "very hard shortages" due to international sanctions.
Mounting pressure on the Gadhafi regime was welcomed by the rebel leadership in Benghazi, eastern Libya, on Wednesday, but the rebel stronghold was later hit by a car bomb in the parking lot of a hotel hosting most foreign diplomats including the American envoy, security and military advisers, U.N. officials and some Western media outlets. There were no casualties, said the rebel leadership, which swiftly blamed it on "sleeper cells" tied to Col. Gadhafi.
"He's sending messages," Mahmoud Shammam, a member of the executive committee of the rebels' National Transitional Council told reporters. "We were expecting something."
Although a car bomb had exploded near the central courthouse in Benghazi last month, this was the first bombing of a facility hosting foreigners since rebels took control of the east in late February.
The Gadhafi regime, pressured by international sanctions and a NATO bombing campaign that is entering its third month, is fighting rebel forces on three fronts—in the enclave around rebel-held Misrata, to the west in the Nafusa mountains and against the main opposition forces in Brega in Libya's east.
In Washington on Wednesday, House Republican leaders abruptly canceled a vote on a resolution forcing a U.S. withdrawal from Libya amid signs an unusual alliance of liberals and conservatives would approve the measure, indicating Congress' growing dissatisfaction with the extent of U.S. military operations overseas.
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