TRIPOLI, Libya — NATO fighter jets struck the Tripoli harbor in bombing runs overnight, damaging five coast guard boats and a warship, the Libyan government said early Friday. Reporters could see flames and smoke rising from the stricken warship into the night sky.
In Brussels, NATO on Friday confirmed that its warplanes targeted the vessels and accused Libya of using its ships in the escalating conflict, including attempts to mine the harbor in Misrata. Rebels trying to end the nearly 40-year rule of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have been struggling to hold the Western city of Misrata against repeated attacks by forces loyal to Gadhafi.
Mohammed Rashid, general manager of the Tripoli port, told reporters that the coast guard boats were used to patrol Libyan waters for immigrant boats trying to make it to Europe and for search-and-rescue activities.
The port official said some damage was done to the port, but that it was minimal. A government official later said he feared the NATO strike would discourage ships from using the Tripoli port, reducing imports and driving up the cost of basic goods for Libyans.
In a tour given to reporters at a distance from the area, a warship could be seen on fire, with flames and plumes of smoke rising the from stricken vessel.
NATO said it acted because the Gadhafi regime was employing more ships in its campaign against rebel fighters.
"Given the escalating use of naval assets, NATO had no choice but to take decisive action to protect the civilian population of Libya and NATO forces at sea," said Rear Adm. Russell Harding, deputy commander of the NATO operation.
"NATO has constantly adapted to the rapidly changing and dynamic situation in Libya and at sea," he said in a statement.
NATO is operating under a U.N. mandate to maintain a no-fly zone over Libya and to prevent attacks on the civilian population.
The Western coalition has stepped up its airstrikes in Tripoli in an apparent attempt to weaken Gadhafi's chief stronghold, the Libyan capital, and potentially target the leader himself. The Gadhafi family compound, Bab al-Aziziya, has been targeted several times.
Also, a NATO strike early Friday hit a police academy in the Tripoli neighborhood of Tajoura, a government official said.
The airstrikes came a day after Gadhafi's forces rocketed the strongholds of rebel fighters the strategic mountain heights southwest of the Libyan capital, rebels said.
The two sides appeared to be fighting for control of the two highways to the north and south of the Nafusa mountain range, which slices across the desert south of Tripoli to the western border with Tunisia.
Rebels, in particular, have used the road, bringing in supplies for camps to train fighters for what they hope will be a future push on the capital. Gadhafi forces have shelled rebel camps and cities in the region in an effort to take the high ground.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters at a late-night news conference Thursday that in a meeting earlier this week with Russian leaders, an envoy offered to withdraw Libyan fighters from cities as part of a peace deal, if rebels do the same.
"We are even prepared to go as far as withdrawing our army from all Libyan cites and population centers," he said. "This is a new offer."
Ibrahim said the offer was the farthest the government had gone since fighting broke out against the rebels. He said as part of the deal, NATO would also have to halt its strikes of Libyan targets.
There was no immediate comment by rebel leaders based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The rebels have rejected previous offers, emboldened by NATO strikes that have helped them cling to swaths of the country, and because they say they don't trust Gadhafi's regime.
Also on Thursday, Gadhafi appeared briefly on Libyan state TV, his first appearance in several days.
Associated Press reporters Michelle Faul in Benghazi, Libya, and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.