The fate of Khamis Gaddafi, one of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's sons and a feared military commander, remained unclear yesterday following rebel claims that he had been killed in a Nato airstrike.
Tripoli immediately rejected the reports, accusing rebels of attempting to draw attention away from the death of a mother and her two children, allegedly killed in Nato's dawn attack on Zlitan, a town southeast of Tripoli.
"It's false news. This is a dirty trick to cover up their crime in Zlitan and the killing of the al-Marabit family," said Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman. Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, also insisted the commander was alive and well and had spoken with officials since the attack.
A rebel spokesman said Khamis Gaddafi, 28, was among 32 soldiers killed in strikes on an ammo depot and military police base in Zlitan. Rebels said they received the news from regime informants and by eavesdropping on radio chatter.
The death of the Libyan leader's sixth son, if it turned out to be true, would deal a massive blow to the embattled regime, which has failed to defeat rebel fighters in five months of fighting on multiple fronts, a task complicated by daily Nato strikes on regime targets.
Despite being unconfirmed, the reports will boost rebel fighters as they battle to break the deadlock with loyalist troops, putting the regime under pressure to dispel rumours of his death.
Khamis Gaddafi's 32nd Brigade is widely considered Libya's most elite unit, fiercely loyal and well-equipped. The 10,000-strong brigade is thought to have helped suppress protests in Benghazi in February, which left hundreds of civilians dead before the eastern city fell to the rebels. At the time of the Nato attack on Zlitan, the brigade was reportedly in the frontline town to defend the approaches to the capital, Tripoli, just 100 miles away.
It is the second time that rebels have reported Khamis Gaddafi's death. He was rumoured killed in an attack in late March, but state television aired grainy footage a week later apparently showing him attending a celebration.
In April, Libyan officials announced Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, the dictator's youngest son who held little influence, had died in a Nato airstrike on a Tripoli compound, narrowly missing Col Gaddafi and his wife. The Gaddafi family has largely kept out of public view recently, besieged daily by airstrikes as western powers try to convince the dictator to relinquish his 42-year rule.Reuse content