Tripoli: The head of the NATO military alliance said on Thursday that military and political pressure were weakening Muammar Gaddafi’s hold on power in Libya and would eventually topple him.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivered his message as Libya’s government denied persistent rumors that Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and top oil official had left the country.
Libyan officials have produced no evidence of the whereabouts of the three, raising questions about Gaddafi’s ability to hold together his entourage in the face of a widespread rebellion and NATO bombing.
“We have significantly degraded Gaddafi’s war machine. And now we see results, the opposition has gained ground,” Rasmussen told a news conference in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.
“I am confident that combination of strong military pressure and increased political pressure and support for the opposition will eventually lead to the collapse of the regime.”
Earlier, a Tunisian security source and a Libyan opposition source with links to the ruling circle said Gaddafi’s wife Safia and daughter Aisha were staying on the Tunisian island of Djerba, near the border with Libya.
Libyan rebel officials, as well as official sources in Tunisia, have also told Reuters that Shokri Ghanem, a former prime minister who runs Libya’s oil industry, had left Libya via Tunisia, though it was unclear where he had gone.
Khaled Kaim, Libya’s deputy foreign minister and one of the main government spokesmen, told Reuters in Tripoli: “Shokri Ghanem is in his position, at work. If he’s out of the country, he’ll be coming back.
“As for the family of the leader, they’re still here in Libya. Where else would they be?”
Rasmussen said he had no information that Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and oil chief had fled.
Western pressure NATO, acting under a UN mandate, has been carrying out air strikes on the oil producer since Gaddafi used force to put down a revolt inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
Rebels control eastern Libya and pockets in the West, but the conflict has reached stalemate in military terms, with rebel attempts to advance on Tripoli, Gaddafi’s stronghold, stalled.
That has left Western governments — under pressure from skeptical publics to deliver a decisive outcome — counting on Gaddafi’s administration collapsing from within.
The last few days have also seen a flurry of diplomatic activity focusing on a possible ceasefire deal, with pro-Gaddafi officials traveling to Moscow for talks and United Nations envoys trying to broker an agreement.
Western powers are likely to stress their determination to keep the pressure up on Gaddafi when heads of state from the Group of Eight industrialized nations meet on May 27-28 in the French seaside resort of Deauville.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the summit host, has been among the most interventionist Western leaders on Libya.
In the city of Misrata, the biggest rebel stronghold in the west of Libya, a NATO air strike targeted a neighborhood where pro-Gaddafi forces were firing mortars, a rebel spokesman said.
“Gaddafi’s forces bombarded the Kararim and Defniyah areas with mortars last night. There was one martyr. Twenty others were wounded,” the spokesman, called Belkasem, told Reuters by telephone.
“NATO struck the Defniyah area last night … The situation is calm today, thank God.”
Libyan officials deny attacking civilians and say they have been forced to act against armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants. They describe the NATO intervention as an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya’s oil.
If Gaddafi’s wife and daughter and Ghanem have left the country, it could make it harder for the Libyan leader to keep other members of his entourage from leaving too.
Without Ghanem to hold together an oil sector creaking under the pressure of sanctions, fuel shortages could worsen and queues at petrol stations — a flashpoint for public anger — may grow even longer.
Gaddafi has survived previous high-level defections, but analysts say there are signs of a gradual bleeding of support, especially as NATO’s intensifies its air strikes and shortages make life harder even for officials.
One Tripoli resident said the everyday machinery of government seemed to have stopped functioning, though Gaddafi’s security forces were still cracking down on dissent.
“There is no government any more. You call people and they’re just not there … Even the people around Gaddafi you don’t see any more,” said the man, who did not want to be named because he feared reprisals.
If Ghanem has defected, he would be the most senior Libyan official to do so since foreign minister Moussa Koussa flew to Britain in March after passing through Tunisia. Agencies