Muammar Gaddafi said Friday he is in a place where NATO bombs cannot reach him, after his government spokesman denied suggestions that the Libyan leader was wounded and on the run.
“I want to say to the Crusader cowards that I live in a place where I cannot be reached or killed; I live in the hearts of millions,” Gaddafi said in an audio message broadcast on state television.
He referred to an early-Thursday strike on his Bab al-Aziziya compound that “led to the martyrdom of three civilians, journalists,” meaning the recording, the authenticity of which could not be verified, was made since then.
And he thanked heads of state who had asked about his health after the NATO air strike.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had said earlier that Gaddafi may be on the run and wounded.
Frattini’s remarks, based on a comments he said were made to him by Giovanni Martinelli, the Roman Catholic bishop of Tripoli, came as rebel leader Mahmud Jibril was headed for the White House to press for US recognition and aid.
Frattini had earlier told Corriere della Sera daily: “I am of the view that (Gaddafi) has probably fled from Tripoli but not from the country.”
But Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told journalists in the capital that “the leader is in very good health, high morale, high spirits,” and “he is in Tripoli.”
Frattini had also said international pressure was causing “the disintegration of the regime from the inside, which is what we wanted.”
He added that arms depots had been raided by rebels on the outskirts of Tripoli in the past few hours.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim told the news conference in Tripoli that a NATO air strike had killed 11 imams who had gathered in Brega, putting the number of wounded people at 50, including five in critical condition.
A spokesman in Brussels said the Western military alliance had no information on the veracity of the claim.
At the news conference, an imam identified as Nureddin al-Mijrah called for “Muslims all around the world” to kill 1,000 people for each of the dead imams, naming acceptable targets as “France, Italy, Denmark, Britain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”
With rebel forces claiming to be only 10 kilometres (six miles) from Zliten, their next main military target on the road to Tripoli, insurgent leader Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign affairs for the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), was to hold talks with US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet Jibril in Paris on Saturday to discuss the conflict and prospects for transition, the French presidency said.
Officials would not say whether President Barack Obama would drop by the Friday meeting, a practice sometimes used with guests for whom protocol does not dictate an official meeting.
The Libyan opposition, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, wants Washington to recognise the body as “the sole legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people,” he said.
Unlike France, Gambia, Italy and Qatar, the United States has not recognised the NTC. Jibril told CNN he believed Jordan would also recognise the opposition in the coming days.
“All we need is for the world to understand our cause and help us get our legitimate rights realised,” he said.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney signalled that Washington was not ready to grant full status to the NTC.
“If the question is recognising the (NTC) as the official government of Libya, I think that’s premature,” he said.
Jibril warned earlier that the council was facing a “very acute financial problem” and needed help from the US administration.
Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said regime assets frozen in the United States — some $30 billion (20 billion euros) — would be used to help the Libyan people.
Jibril’s visit comes as the Obama administration gradually steps up contacts with Gaddafi’s opposition to better understand the movement before deciding on the extent of US assistance.
In The Hague, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that on Monday he will seek arrest warrants for three people considered most responsible for crimes against humanity in Libya.
His office said it would reveal the three names, with diplomats saying Gaddafi is likely to top the list.
“The judges may decide to accept the application, to reject it or to ask the office for additional information,” a statement said.
Last week, Moreno-Ocampo said Gaddafi’s regime was murdering and persecuting civilians in widespread and systematic attacks.
He said he was also investigating the deaths of dozens of sub-Saharan Africans in the rebel bastion of Benghazi by an “angry mob” who believed they were mercenaries in Gaddafi’s pay.
In Geneva, the UN refugee agency said it feared that up to 1,200 people fleeing Libya had died in the Mediterranean Sea so far and that it had found evidence that a military vessel refused to rescue one boat.
“There are about 12,000 people who have arrived in Italy or Malta and we believe that as many as 1,200 people are dead or have gone missing,” said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
A migrant told the UNHCR that unidentified military vessels off the Libyan coast refused or failed to pick up a boat carrying 72 people, most of whom subsequently died of exhaustion, thirst or starvation in late March or early April.
Meanwhile, NATO said its air offensive around key Libyan cities has significantly affected Gaddafi’s forces, halting the shelling of Misrata in the previous 24 hours.
“The situation on the ground remains dynamic with significant changes,” Wing Commander Mike Bracken said at NATO operational headquarters in Naples, Italy.
“Just in the past 72 hours, our strikes in Tripoli, around Sirte and the port town of Misrata have significantly impacted the command and control capability of the Gaddafi regime, his supplies of ammunition and weapons, and his ability to launch attacks,” Bracken said.