Libya's rebel forces today said a NATO strike killed Muammar Gaddafi's youngest son Khamis and 31 others, a claim that was sharply denied by the authorities in Tripoli.
A rebel military spokesman said NATO had hit a military operations centre overnight in the western town of Zliten killing 32, including Khamis, a feared military commander.
"Overnight there was an aircraft attack by NATO on the Gaddafi operations room in Zliten and there are around 32 Gaddafi troops killed. One of them is Khamis," Mohammed Zawawi, a spokesman for revolutionary militias, told AFP.
Zawawi cited spies operating among Gaddafi's ranks and intercepted radio chatter as sources. But a spokesman for Gaddafi's regime said the claim was untrue. "Basically the news about the killing of Khamis by a NATO air strike are very dirty lies to cover the murder of civilians in the peaceful city," said Mussa Ibrahim.
There was no independent verification of Khamis's death, which has been rumoured a number of times during Libya's five month-long civil war. From the Naples headquarters of NATO's Libya operations an official confirmed the alliance's warplanes had hit at least two targets in Zliten overnight, but made no comment about the reports of Khamis's death. "We are aware of the news reports," the official told AFP. "NATO struck an ammunition storage at around 8:15 pm (1815 GMT) in Zliten and a military police facility within a combat area at around 10:45 pm in the area of Zliten yesterday," he added.
If confirmed, Khamis's death would be a huge blow to both the regime's military and the morale of Gaddafi's inner circle. The 28-year-old Khamis trained at a Russian military academy and commands the eponymous and much-feared Khamis Brigade, one of the Libyan regime's toughest fighting units.
The brigade took part in the assault on the rebel enclave of Misrata, which has been bombarded from three sides and has seen some of the fiercest fighting of Libya's civil war. In the centre of Benghazi, where hundreds of the faithful gathered for the first Friday prayers of Ramadan, there was caution about the reports.
"Khamis is dead again; how many lives does this guy have," asked Moataz, an engineer who returned to Libya after the revolution. Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the rebels' de facto government, the National Transitional Council, told AFP Khamis's death would be a major victory. "If his death is confirmed then the death of this tyrant is a victory for our revolution and our youth, especially in the west," he said.
The apparent strike came just hours after the Gaddafi regime took journalists on an escorted tour of the centre of Zliten, an effort to rubbish rebel claims the town was under attack. Fighters from the rebel enclave of Misrata, 60 kilometres to the east, announced this week they had made progress in Zliten, a strategic coastal town on the road to Tripoli. But authorities in Tripoli quickly denied that, saying they controlled the entire town.