Loud explosions rocked Tripoli Tuesday as NATO unleashed its heaviest blitz yet of the capital in a bid to speed up the ouster of Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi while rebels gained ground diplomatically.
Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told reporters that at least three people died and 150 were wounded in the air strikes, which he said targeted a deserted military barracks but which instead hit civilians living nearby.
NATO rejected the charge that the strikes had targeted a barracks and said in fact a strategic vehicle storage facility -- used to resupply the regime forces and instrumental in attacks against civilians -- had been struck.
The Western alliance is shifting into high gear in Libya in a bid to deliver a decisive blow against Kadhafi's government, hitting Tripoli with its heaviest bombardment to date.
"The regime has become very apathetic in the last 15 days. It has lost the military initiative and appears on the defensive, which is a sign that we are on the right path," a senior NATO military official said.
"We think that we must speed up and increase the tempo of our operations to let the fruit drop on its own," the official said, adding that allies hope that by "end of June, beginning July, Kadhafi has fallen."
After three months of fighting, however, the regime remains entrenched in much of the west, including the capital Tripoli.
Worried about getting bogged down in an endless stalemate, NATO allies, who were divided over going into Libya in the first place and face budgetary constraints, have no choice but to increase the pressure, the official said.
An AFP journalist said the raids lasting more than half an hour began at around 1:00 am (2300 GMT Monday) when powerful blasts were heard in the sector around Kadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya residence compound.
More than 15 strong blasts were heard in the neighbourhood, with the sound of warplanes roaring overhead.
A further three explosions were heard in the garrison town of Tajura, east of the capital, during the afternoon, residents said.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Plumes of smoke rose over the Mediterranean seaside town but witnesses were not immediately able to identify the target.
In another boost to forces fighting to oust Kadhafi, France said it would provide attack helicopters for NATO's air campaign along with and the EU widened sanctions against Kadhafi's forces.
The helicopters, a weapon that has yet to be used by NATO in Libya, will help the western alliance strike regime military assets hidden in urban areas while avoiding civilian casualties, French ministers said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, on the sidelines of meetings of European Union foreign and defence ministers in Brussels, said Paris was deploying Tigre and Gazelle class helicopters aboard an aircraft carrier.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said separately that London would also deploy attack helicopters as soon as possible but a British minister denied that, saying the idea was still under consideration.
On Monday, Washington urged Kadhafi to leave Libya as Jeffrey Feltman, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, held talks in the rebel capital Benghazi.
Feltman told a news conference in Benghazi on Tuesday that the rebels' National Transitional Council had been invited to open an office in Washington.
"I delivered a formal invitation to the council for the opening of a representation in Washington," Feltman said, calling the move an "important milestone."
On the issue of calls for US recognition of the NTC as the "sole legitimate interlocutor" of Libyans, Feltman noted the council was in fact already the only representative of the country in Washington.
"There is ongoing diplomatic, political relationship and dialogue with members of the council, who are considered by our fellows credible and legitimate representatives of the Libyan people, he said." "
Jordan, meanwhile, said it recognises the National Transitional Council as the "legitimate representative" of the Libyan people and intends to appoint an envoy to Benghazi, the rebels' capital.
On Monday, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, opened an EU office in Benghazi and declared the 27-member bloc's "long-term support" to the rebels.