SURMAN, Libya (AP) — Libya's government said a NATO airstrike west of Tripoli early Monday destroyed a large family compound belonging to a close associate of Moammar Gadhafi, killing at least 15 people, including three children. It was the second claim of civilian deaths at a home in as many days.
The alliance said the strike Monday hit a "command and control" center.
Gadhafi's regime has repeatedly accused NATO of targeting civilians in an attempt to rally support against international intervention into Libya's civil war. The alliance insists it tries to avoid killing civilians.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said NATO bombs struck the compound belonging to Khoweildi al-Hamidi outside the city of Surman, some 40 miles (60 kilometers) west of Tripoli, around 4 a.m. local time Monday.
NATO initially said it had not hit any targets in the Surman area overnight. But the alliance later released a statement saying it conducted a "precision strike" near the town early Monday "on a legitimate military target — a command and control node which was directly involved in coordinating systematic attacks" on Libyan citizens.
The commander of NATO's Libya operation, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, said the "strike will greatly degrade the Gadhafi regime's forces' ability to carry out their barbaric assaults on the Libyan people."
"Wherever Gadhafi tries to hide his command and control centers, we will find them," he said.
NATO officials have repeatedly said the alliance does not target individuals. It could not confirm reports of casualties in Monday's strike but said it regrets any loss of civilian life.
Al-Hamidi is a longtime regime insider who took part in the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power. He reportedly commanded a battalion that crushed rebels in the nearby western city of Zawiya in March, and his daughter is married to one of Gadhafi's sons, Saadi.
Ibrahim said al-Hamidi escaped the airstrikes unharmed but that three children, two of them al-Hamidi's grandchildren, were among the 15 people killed. Officials said he was inside a still-intact building at the time of the strike.
"They (NATO) are targeting civilians. ... The logic is intimidation," Ibrahim said. "They want Libyans to give up the fight ... they want to break our spirit."
He warned that killing civilians risked creating a "hateful generation" of young Libyans who "will make the world a very dangerous place."
Foreign journalists based in the Libyan capital were taken by government officials to the walled compound, where at least two buildings had been blasted to rubble. A pair of massive craters could be seen in the dusty ground, and rescue workers with sniffer dogs were scouring the rubble in search of people. The smell of smoke was still in the air.
Bombs also ripped holes through the top of a large tent sheltering cars, smashing the floor and mangling vehicles inside. The windows were shattered in a circular sitting room containing old framed photos said to be of al-Hamidi, and a deer kept in an enclosure with other animals had a broken antler and was bleeding from the mouth.
While there were no signs of heavy weapons at the site, armed guards in military-style uniforms patrolled the grounds as numerous security cameras watched over the sprawling complex. Hundreds of cases of bottled water, cooking oil, pasta and other supplies were stockpiled in one of the destroyed buildings.
Another building outside the compound, next to a communications tower, was also flattened, and walls were blown out of an adjacent house. A mosque across the street and a school next door were not damaged.
Journalists were later taken to a hospital in the nearby city of Sabratha, where medical workers showed them the bodies of about eight to 10 people, including at least two children, said to have been killed in the strike. Some of the bodies appeared charred, while others were in pieces. Portraits of Gadhafi hung on the hospital walls as armed men in military fatigues roamed the hallways.
NATO, which has a mandate to protect Libyan civilians, has rejected government allegations that it targets civilians. However, mistakes have occurred.
On Sunday, the alliance acknowledged that one of its airstrikes accidentally struck a residential neighborhood in the capital, killing civilians. Like on Monday, journalists were taken to the scene of that bomb site and then shown bodies of those said to have been killed.
A coalition including France, Britain and the United States launched the first strikes against Gadhafi's forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO, which is joined by a number of Arab allies, assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31.
From their de facto capital of Benghazi, the rebels have taken over much of the eastern half of the country. They also control pockets in the west, mainly around the port city of Misrata and in the Nafusa mountains south of Tripoli.
In Luxembourg, European Union foreign ministers condemned the Libyan regime, saying in a statement that "time is not on Gadhafi's side," and that the Libyan leader "has lost all legitimacy to remain in power."
The 27 foreign ministers also toughened the bloc's sanctions against the regime by adding six port authorities controlled by Gadhafi's forces to its asset-freeze list. The ports were not named.
In a similar move, the central bank of the United Arab Emirates ordered a freeze on the accounts of 19 Libyan individuals and institutions while an investigation of the funds is under way into possible links to Gadhafi's regime, according to local media.
The reports gave no further details, and officials at the UAE's central bank were not immediately available for comment.
Associated Press writers Don Melvin in Luxembourg and Brian Murphy in Dubai contributed to this report.