Gaddafi and his wife were in the Tripoli house of his 29-year-old son, Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, when it was hit by at least one missile fired by a NATO warplane late on Saturday, according to Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
“The house of Mr Saif al-Arab Gaddafi was attacked tonight with full power. The leader with his wife was there in the house with other friends and relatives.
“The leader himself is in good health, he wasn’t harmed,” the spokesman said, adding that Gaddafi’s wife was also unharmed but other people in the house were injured.
“This was a direct operation to assassinate the leader of this country. This is not permitted by international law. It is not permitted by any moral code or principle.
“What we have now is the law of the jungle,” Ibrahim told a news conference.
“We think now it is clear to everyone that what is happening in Libya has nothing to do with the protection of civilians.”
Ibrahim would not give the names of the three children, who he claimed were killed, except to say they were nieces and nephews of Saif al-Arab and that they were younger than 12. He said they are not releasing the names yet to protect the privacy of the family.
He said the compound that was hit was in the Garghour neighborhood.
“It seems there was intelligence that was leaked. They knew about something. They expected him for some reason. But the target was very clear, very, very clear. And the neighbourhood, yes of course, because the leader family has a place there, you could expect of course it would be guarded, but it is a normal neighbourhood. Normal Libyans live there,” he said.
The 29-year-old Saif al-Arab Gaddafi is the most unknown of the Libyan leader’s children, Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Tunisia, said.
“He’s one of the low-profile of his children and has been largely invisible since the conflict began”, she said.
“He hasn’t been visible in any significant form. He hasn’t appeared on TV or made any speeches, he hasn’t been on any crowd-rallying marches.”
Ibrahim said al-Arab was a civilian and a student who had studied in Germany.
Ibrahim had earlier taken journalists to the remnants of a house in Tripoli, which Libyan officials said had been hit by at least three missiles. Given the level of destruction, it is unclear that anyone could have survived.
Benghazi rebels, who control a vast swathe of the east of the country, say they cannot trust Gaddafi.
Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton, reporting from Benghazi, said there were “an awful lot” of suggestions in Libya that the news of the deaths could be fabricated.
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“One of the main spokesmen for the Transitional National Council, Abdul Hafez Goga, is saying he thinks it could all be fabrication, that it may well be Gaddafi is trying to garner some sympathy,” she said.
“Back in 1986, Gaddafi once claimed that Ronald Reagan, then US president, had launched a strike on his compound in Tripoli and killed his daughter. Many journalists since then dug around and found out that the actual child that had died had nothing to do with Gaddafi, that he sort of adopted her posthumously.”
Three loud explosions were heard in Tripoli on Saturday evening as jets flew overhead. Volleys of anti-aircraft fire rang out following the first two strikes, which were followed by a third.
In a press release issued early on Sunday, NATO said it had staged air strikes in Tripoli’s Bab al-Azizya neighbourhood but did not confirm Libyan claims that strongman Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren were killed.
“NATO continued its precision strikes against Gaddafi regime military installations in Tripoli overnight, including striking a known command and control building in the Bab al-Azizya neighbourhood shortly after 1800 GMT Saturday evening,” the statement said.
“All NATO’s targets are military in nature and have been clearly linked to the… regime’s systematic attacks on the Libyan population and populated areas. We do not target individuals,” Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, commander of NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, said.
Bouchard said he was aware of unconfirmed reports that some of Gaddafi’s family members might have been killed in the strike, adding: “We regret all loss of life, especially the innocent civilians being harmed as a result of the ongoing conflict.”
Rifle fire and car horns rang out in Benghazi as news of the attack spread.
Cars whizzed by the sea front beeping their horns and shouting “God is greatest” as the night sky was lit up by red tracer fire.
Al Jazeera and agencies