TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi stood defiant Tuesday in the face of the heaviest and most punishing NATO airstrikes yet — at least 40 thunderous daylight attacks that sent plumes of smoke billowing above the Libyan leader’s central Tripoli compound.
The strikes continued overnight. Early Wednesday, some 10 explosions shook the Libyan capital. It was not immediately clear what was hit.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Libyan state television broadcast an audio address from Gadhafi, who denounced NATO and the rebels challenging his rule. He vowed never to surrender.
“We will not kneel!” he shouted.
Alliance officials warned for days they were increasing the scope and intensity of their air campaign to oust Gadhafi after more than 40 years in power. NATO is backing the rebel insurgency, which has seized swaths of eastern Libya and pockets in the regime’s stronghold in the west since it began in February, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
Some 6,850 people, nearly all of them Libyans, have streamed across the border from Libya to Tunisia since Monday to flee the NATO raids as well as fighting between the rebels and government forces, according to the Tunisian Defense Ministry.
It couldn’t be confirmed whether Gadhafi’s some 10-minute speech was a live phone call or an audio recording, but it appeared to take state television by surprise. The sound was hastily adjusted to make it louder
“We will not surrender: We only have one choice — to the end! Death, victory, it does not matter, we are not surrendering!” Gadhafi said. Highlighting his anger, he called the rebels “bastards.”
As he spoke, reporters in Tripoli heard the whooshing sound of low-flying military craft again, followed by several explosions. Pro-Gadhafi loyalists also fired celebratory gunfire in the air.
The Libyan leader also later appeared on state television sitting with tribal elders, said government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
“He is still resilient,” Ibrahim said, adding that Gadhafi believes NATO strikes are “not about civilians, democracy or peace in Libya. The attacks are about domination, revenge and wealth.”
Gadhafi was last seen in a brief appearance on state television in late May. He has mostly been in hiding since NATO strikes in April targeted one of his homes. Libyan officials said one of his sons, Saif al-Arab, and three of his grandchildren were killed in that strike.
Another of his sons, Al-Saadi Gadhafi — a one-time football player and leader of an army unit — also called into a late-night state television show early Wednesday, denouncing the regime’s opponents.
The sharp escalation in NATO strikes comes as the U.S. and its allies step up efforts to break the virtual stalemate that has prevented both sides from achieving an outright victory.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama once again called on Gadhafi to step aside.
“Gadhafi must step down and hand power to the Libyan people, and the pressure will only continue to increase until he does,” Obama said during a joint news conference in Washington with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is heading to the United Arab Emirates to confer with NATO nations and others prosecuting an air campaign in Libya to assess the effort to get Gadhafi to leave and increase support for the country’s opposition.
Western reporters and a senior Libyan government official said the pounding airstrikes Tuesday easily outstripped the number of bombing runs on any day since the international air campaign began in mid-March.
Ibrahim claimed some 31 people were killed in 60 NATO strikes on Tripoli. Previous government tolls have proven to be exaggerated.
Reporters, who face tight restrictions in the Libyan capital, saw only one dead man during a visit to Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound.
The dust-covered bloodied man was draped around a cement column at one of the crushed compound buildings. He was seen on a government-escorted tour of bombed sites.
The boot and legs of the man, identified as Misbah Hussein, in his forties, stuck out from beneath a pile of twisted metal close to the remains of a building just inside the eastern entrance of the Gadhafi compound.
As his comrades realized what they were staring at, they rushed toward him, their arms raised.
“Bring a blanket!” one shouted.
They wrapped him in the closest thing they could find — a large green flag — green being the iconic color of the Gadhafi regime.
A soldier said eight strikes targeted the building, which he said was a guest house for visiting dignitaries.
Around him, one building was smashed into three hulking cement parts and the floor was strewn with small chunks of metal, foam and cement.
He said some two dozen soldiers and civilians were sitting near the building when it was hit. He would not be named, citing military regulations.
A strike smashed another nearby building that officials identified as a guest house. The ground was littered with small gray shards.
That was not far from a zone where pro-Gadhafi supporters have camped in tents for the past few weeks to act as human shields against NATO strikes. Ibrahim, the regime spokesman, said the attacks would spawn “generations of revenge.”
NATO issued no immediate comment on battering it delivered over Tripoli.
Gadhafi’s inner circle has been shaken by a wave of defections. A Libyan rebel diplomat in Geneva said Tuesday that the country’s labor minister Al-Amin Manfour — who had been representing Libya at the International Labor Organization’s annual meeting — has defected and joined the rebels.
Adel Shaltut said Tuesday that Manfour was on his way to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, in eastern Libya. Shaltut and other diplomats at Libya’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva defected to the rebels in February.