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Fight goes on for Gaddafi forces despite aerial bombardment

Ground forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi were still fighting to regain and hold territory yesterday after two nights of Western bombardment which saw the first attack on a section of the Libyan leader's compound in the heart of Tripoli.

As bursts of Libyan anti-aircraft fire in Tripoli and at least two explosions were heard in the capital on the third successive night, there were unconfirmed reports of a fresh onslaught on Misrata, 130 miles east of Tripoli. The town of Zintan, just 75 miles south-west of the capital, faced heavy shelling from forces loyal to Gaddafi, according to reports, forcing residents to flee, some taking shelter in caves in the mountainous region.

The regime gave details of what they said had been other strikes by Western forces in the previous 48 hours on airports at Sirte, Zuara, Misrata and Sebha, and a small harbour known as Area 27. The government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim insisted that Sirte was a civilian airport and said that several civilians had been killed there.

In Misrata one resident claimed to Reuters that when civilians had gathered in the centre of the town to confront the Gaddafi forces, they "started shooting at them with artillery and guns ... the hospital told us that at least nine people were killed". It was impossible to check the reports because reporters are prevented from travelling to Misrata, 130 miles east of Tripoli.

In the capital there were reports that Colonel Gaddafi's sixth son, Khamis, had been killed when a Libyan pilot deliberately crashed his plane into a barracks. The claim was denied by sources in the capital.

At a news conference in Tripoli last night Mr Ibrahim said there had been a "pre-planned conspiracy" against Libya, predicted that it could descend into the internecine strife that followed the Iraq war and urged an end to international military intervention. Addressing Western powers behind the intervention, he added: "If you want to protect civilians you have to stem the aggression and come to talk to us."

Meanwhile the RAF said yesterday that a 3,000-mile mission to bomb Libya was aborted minutes from the targets on Sunday night because of reports that civilians were in the area. Major General John Lorimer, strategic communications officer to the Chief of Defence Staff, said that the decision to call the mission off illustrated the coalition's determination to "take all measures possible to reduce the chance of harming innocent civilians". It remained unclear whether Colonel Gaddafi was using them as human shields.

Tornado jets have been flying the air force's longest missions since the Second World War, from RAF Marham in Norfolk, but last night they transferred to join Typhoon jets at the Gioia del Colle air base in southern Italy. Typhoons took off from the airbase last night.

The Ministry of Defence refused to confirm reports that it was one of its missiles that hit a building within Colonel Gaddafi's compound, as the row over whether the Libyan leader was a legitimate target raged on. Major General Lorimer would only say the attacks had been "highly effective".

In Cairo yesterday, Libyans, infuriated by the international military intervention, blocked the path of the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, after his meeting with the Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, who has been increasingly restive about the Western attacks to impose a no-fly zone that his organisation backed 11 days ago. The Libyans stopped Mr Ban from walking round Tahrir Square, the scene of the protests which toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Meanwhile, four New York Times journalists who had been held for six days in the east of the country were released yesterday.