TRIPOLI, Libya â€“ Supporters of Moammar Gadhafi rallied Thursday in Tripoli after the Libyan leader lashed out at NATO over civilian casualties, calling the alliance “murderers” following an airstrike on the family home of a close associate.
Tens of thousands of supporters, most of them women, gathered in the capital’s Green Square hours after the late-night speech, vowing to defend the Libyan leader against rebels seeking to oust him and NATO forces giving them air support.
Gadhafi also warned the alliance that its more than three-month mission in Libya is a “crusader’s campaign” that could come back to haunt the West.
“What you are doing will rebound against you and against the world with destruction, desolation and terrorism. You are launching a second crusader war that might extend to Africa, Europe and America,” he said in an audio address first aired on Libyan state television late Wednesday.
“Go on and attack us for two years, three years or even 10 years. But in the end, the aggressor is the one who will lose. One day we will be able to retaliate in the same way, and your houses will be legitimate targets for us,” Gadhafi added.
The defiant address was the first from the Libyan leader since NATO targeted a compound Monday owned by Khoweildi al-Hamidi, a longtime regime insider whose daughter is married to one of Gadhafi’s sons.
Gadhafi blasted the alliance for that strike, calling NATO “criminals” and “savages” and asking rhetorically: “Is this house a military target?”
Libya says 19 people, including at least three children and other civilians, were killed in that strike near the town of Surman, some 40 miles (60 kilometers) west of Tripoli. NATO has called the compound a “command and control” center and says it regrets any civilian deaths.
That bombing came a day after NATO acknowledged that one of its airstrikes may have slammed into a civilian neighborhood in Tripoli. Libyan officials said nine civilians were killed in that strike, though a family member told The Associated Press at the scene that five people died.
NATO is investigating what happened in the Tripoli neighborhood strike and insists it goes to great lengths not to harm civilians.
A coalition including France, Britain and the United States began striking Gadhafi’s forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It’s joined by a number of Arab allies.
Meanwhile, judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, said they will rule Monday on whether to order the arrest of Gadhafi for allegedly orchestrating deadly attacks on civilians.
A warrant would turn Gadhafi into an internationally wanted war crimes suspect at risk of detention if he ever ventured outside Libya.
A judicial panel will also announce whether it will issue arrest warrants for Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi.
Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo alleges Gadhafi’s forces attacked civilians in their homes, shot at demonstrators, shelled funeral processions and deployed snipers to kill people leaving mosques during the violent crackdown on rebels.
The International Committee of the Red Cross on Thursday began sea transfer of Libyans separated from their families by the fighting. The humanitarian organization, aided by the Libyan Red Crescent, said it plans to take three boatloads of people from Tripoli to the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi. Others will be taken in the opposite direction.
Rebels control the eastern third of the country and pockets in the west. Libyans living in rebel-held areas are largely cut off from their countrymen in areas under Gadhafi’s control.
Italy, which is participating in the NATO campaign, expressed concern Wednesday about the accidental killing of civilians in alliance airstrikes and called for a suspension in hostilities to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
But NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a video message on the NATO website the alliance would press on with its mission in Libya because stopping would mean more civilians could lose their lives.
“Remember, the Gadhafi regime began this conflict by attacking its own people with sustained and systematic violence â€” not NATO,” Rasmussen said.
In the Czech capital, Prague, British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters the coalition needs to be patient and persistent in the Libya mission, countering growing skepticism in the West over the military campaign.
“Time is on our side. Time is not on the side of Col. Gadhafi, who is losing his leading military commanders, who has lost his foreign minister, who has lost his oil minister, who’s lost most of his country, who is losing in the west of the country where the rebellion is growing,” Cameron said.
Reports of civilian deaths in NATO strikes have provoked intense anger among Gadhafi supporters.
Pro-Gadhafi demonstrators rallying in Tripoli on Thursday railed against NATO for striking civilians. Some women at the demonstration came armed, vowing to fight to defend their country and its leader.
“Everyone is training (to fight) since high school for a day like today,” said dentist Hanin Khalil, 30, an aging Beretta submachine gun slung over her shoulder. “Not only (I) have a weapon. All people have their weapons to protect themselves from NATO.”
Despite the heavy security presence, not everyone in the iconic central square was behind the longtime Libyan leader.
One young man in a white compact car driving around the square spotted two Western journalists and yelled in English from the passenger seat.
“Gadhafi, he go down,” he said while pointing his thumb toward the ground as the car sped away.