Nato jets hit Gaddafi's compound as shells rain down on Misrata

At least two Nato bombs struck the beleaguered Libyan leader's compound in central Tripoli yesterday as the Western military alliance ramped up its campaign against the embattled Gaddafi regime.

Nato jets swooped over the capital early yesterday, shattering the pre-dawn calm and destroying Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's office and library in the sprawling residential and military complex, as well as a state television station.

Surveying the damage at the buildings, including one used to host an African Union meeting just two weeks ago, regime officials told journalists that the strike was an assassination attempt on the Libyan leader. It is the second strike to hit the compound. Colonel Gaddafi was shown on state television last night, meeting community leaders in Tripoli.

Nato's symbolic attack on the dictator's residence comes just hours after US senators called on Washington to target Colonel Gaddafi directly, and could trigger unease among its more reluctant allies, such as Russia. Moscow has accused the coalition of exceeding a United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

Nato said the strikes had targeted a communications headquarters "used to co-ordinate attacks against civilians", insisting that it was necessary to maintain "a high operational tempo" to prevent the regime from firing on its own people.

The British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, meanwhile, is heading to Washington to meet his American counterpart, Robert Gates, to discuss the campaign including plans to step up precision attacks.

The strikes came as pro-Gaddafi forces continued to pound Misrata, the only remaining rebel-held city in the west of Libya, despite the regime's claims last Friday that it was halting its fire to leave it up to local tribes to end the conflict, a claim treated with some scepticism by rebels. Misrata, devastated by urban fighting in the past two months, has emerged as a key battleground between the rebels and loyalist forces in the west, with the regime keenly aware that the loss of Misrata to the opposition would leave nearby Tripoli vulnerable.

Although rebels have pushed loyalist troops out of strongholds in the centre of the city, the regime's forces have continued their shelling.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the most visible of Colonel Gaddafi's sons, appeared unbowed by the Tripoli attack, claiming that the Libyan leader had "millions of Libyans with him" and that Nato was destined to fail.

"This cowardly attack ... may frighten or terrorise children but we will not abandon the battle and we are not afraid," the Jana state news agency quoted him as saying. "You, Nato, are waging a losing battle because you are backed by traitors and spies."

Nevertheless, officials at the site of the Tripoli blast, which is not thought to have caused any serious injuries, were noticeably rattled, with one issuing a warning that such attacks would justify terrorist attacks in Nato countries.