By RICHARD BOUDREAUX in Tripoli, Libya and SAM DAGHER in Benghazi
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization pummeled Col. Moammar Gadhafi's sprawling Tripoli compound with missiles Thursday, killing three people the government says were working on a documentary film about supporters gathered there as "human shields" for the Libyan leader.
Twenty-seven others were reported wounded in the predawn airstrikes, which highlighted both NATO's growing pressure on Col. Gadhafi and his regime's practice of rallying women, children and other civilians in a frequently targeted compound of bunkers, military facilities, offices and living quarters for the regime's elite.
The assault accompanied military and diplomatic advances by rebels in their battle to end the colonel's four decades of rule. On Wednesday, rebel forces captured the airport and large sectors of territory around Misrata, a city in western Libya that has been encircled by government troops, according to residents and rebel officials.
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On the diplomatic front, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the rebels' Benghazi-based administration, the Transitional National Council, met with British officials including Prime Minister David Cameron in London Thursday, ahead of a planned visit by rebel leaders to the White House Friday. Libyan rebel officials will meet with White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, senior administration officials and members of Congress, the White House said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the U.K. plans to send Libyan rebels more communications equipment, bulletproof vests and uniforms for civilian police authorities. The U.K. also invited the rebel group to open a mission in the country, which has the largest Libyan community outside of Libya.
The Benghazi leadership said it had completed appointments to a new 15-member executive body that rebel spokesman Abdel-Hafeez Ghoga said would act as an "emergency government" until Col. Gadhafi's regime falls.
Mr. Ghoga also said rebel authorities were investigating the fatal shooting of a French man and the detention of four others in Benghazi late Wednesday. He said the men were private security contractors. A French foreign ministry statement about the incident gave no information about the men.
In Misrata, a British destroyer came under artillery fire from Col. Gadhafi's forces on the coast as it moved to intercept a high-speed inflatable craft similar to others that had recently mined the city's harbor, Britain's Defense Ministry reported. The destroyer returned fire, silencing the shore battery, it said.
The rebels' gains and their increasing military coordination with NATO appeared to have unsettled supporters of the regime.
Angry demonstrators greeted foreign journalists at the bombed compound in Tripoli Thursday. "NATO is mad!" declared government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim in a briefing at the site.
The regime is "ready for a peaceful political process," Mr. Ibrahim said, rejecting the rebels' demand that Col. Gadhafi step down before talks can begin. "No one has the right to precondition the political process, not NATO, not some armed gangs."
"They will not break our spirit," he added. "We will keep fighting."
The attack came hours after Libyan state television showed a short video clip of Col. Gadhafi, the first new footage of him aired since an April 30 airstrike destroyed another of his compounds, killing one of his sons. The footage had been shot Wednesday in the Rixos Hotel, where the presence of foreign journalists makes it safe from NATO bombs.
On Thursday, a NATO spokesman said its forces targeted military facilities, not individuals, repeating a denial that the aim of the alliance's frequent strikes on Tripoli is to kill the colonel, as Libyan officials have charged. The attack hit "a large command and control bunker complex in downtown Tripoli that was used to coordinate attacks against civilian populations," NATO said.
Explosions thundered across the city and ambulances raced through the streets as smoke rose from the colonel's Bab al-Azaziya compound.
Five missiles struck the compound, Mr. Ibrahim said. Journalists taken to the site 12 hours later saw a heavily damaged two-story building that officials described as an office complex; a corner had been blown away, leaving fragments of concrete on the street below.
Large craters left in two other locations had been filled with brownish water, concealing the depth of the blasts and any underground structures that may have been targeted. Mr. Ibrahim said the water had poured in from sewer lines severed by the missiles. He said there were no bunkers below.
Medics arrived at a hospital with the bodies of two men they said were killed in the attack. One of the bodies was charred. The other was covered by a green blanket, a leg dangling from the stretcher.
"They were burned, totally," said Mohammed Salah, a 34-year-old dentist among the group of pro-Gadhafi demonstrators at the compound. "The people who had some pulse, we managed to save. The people who were burned—finished!"
The dead were identified as Ali al-Graw, Ismail al-Sharif and Abdel Salam Massoud Mohammed. The spokesman said the first two were Libyan journalists but didn't identify their organization. Mr. Mohammed, he said, was a guide who had been escorting them as they filmed several hundred people who were rallying in the Libyan leader's defense when the missiles struck.
Government supporters in dozens of tents have kept a round-the-clock vigil at the compound since NATO began bombing in March. Referring to them as "human shields," Mr. Ibrahim defended their presence, insisting it was voluntary.
"People sing and dance here, every day and night," he said. "If people choose to lead the fight forward for the leader…and say no to NATO, this is their choice. We are a fighting nation."
Mr. Ibrahim spoke next to one of the bomb craters, near the spot of the three fatalities. A dozen children involved in the human-shield vigil whirled on a nearby carousel, watched by their mothers.
Not far away, near a fortress-like building surrounded by barbed wire, a group of demonstrators gathered at the top of an underground staircase holding tree branches to block it from journalists' view.
Asked whether the staircase led to military bunker, Mr. Salah, the dentist, said: "I don't know and I don't care. But if we stand in front of you saying, 'You are wrong about this man and we are willing to protect him with our own bodies,' then you should respect us as civilians."
He scoffed at the claim by NATO that it is trying to halt the Gadhafi regime's deadly attacks on civilian areas involved in the uprising. "You are wrong," he said. "The whole world is wrong. You want our land, our oil. You'll never get it!"—Cassell Bryan-Low and Stephen Fidler contributed to this article.
Write to Richard Boudreaux at email@example.com