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Is Qaddafi wounded? Has he fled Tripoli? Libyan appears on TV Friday evening

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Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi gave a fiery audio speech on television Friday evening in which he predictably criticized Western efforts to dislodge and even kill him.

He said that NATO bombing attacks on his residential compound were “cowardly.” Mr. Qaddafi also taunted his enemies by declaring that he was at a place “where you can’t find me.”

“I tell the cowardly crusader (NATO) that I live in a place they cannot find and where you cannot kill me.... I live in the hearts of the millions,” Colonel Qaddafi said.

Earlier, reports swirled in Tripoli that Mr. Qaddafi had likely abandoned the capital Tripoli, and had most likely been wounded. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini raised those possibilities, as increasing NATO airstrikes mounted pressure on the Libyan leader from within his stronghold city to leave his country.

Mr. Frattini told reporters that he had been told by Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, the Catholic bishop in Tripoli, that “Qaddafi was most probably outside Tripoli and probably even wounded” by NATO airstrikes, according to Reuters.

“I tend to give credence to the comment of the bishop of Tripoli, Monsignor Martinelli, who has been in close contact over recent weeks, when he told us that Qaddafi is very probably outside Tripoli and is probably also wounded. We don't know,” Mr. Frattini said.

A Libyan government spokesman denied that Colonel Qaddafi had been wounded.

“It’s nonsense,” Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said in Tripoli. “The leader is in high morale. He’s in good spirits. He is leading the country day by day. He hasn’t been harmed at all.”

Contacted from Rome, Bishop Martinelli’s office said he had left the Libyan capital for Tunis.

As the Vatican’s top official in Tripoli, Bishop Martinelli has been in contact with Mr. Qaddafi’s entourage.

The Italian priest joined a Muslim cleric in blessing the bodies of Mr. Qaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren who were killed in a NATO raid on April 30. It was unclear why a Roman Catholic priest would be asked to participate in Islamic last rites.

Since the start of the NATO operation, Bishop Martinelli has been highly outspoken and critical of the military strikes, saying that many civilians had been killed.

The latest reports on Colonel Qaddafi came as NATO airstrikes and worsening shortages of fuel and goods mount pressure on him in the capital Tripoli. An activist said Friday that there has also been a wave of anti-government protests in several Tripoli neighborhoods this week.

Opposition fighters, meanwhile, received major political boosts from abroad. Britain promised to provide them with police gear, and the Obama administration invited a rebel delegation to the White House for talks on Friday, according to The Associated Press.

The sound of two NATO strikes could be heard in the capital early Friday. It was not immediately clear what they targeted. A round of NATO airstrikes on Thursday hit Colonel Qaddafi’s fortified compound in Tripoli. Just hours beforehand, the Libyan leader had appeared on state TV for the first time since his son was killed nearly two weeks ago. Before his appearance, rumors swirled that he had been killed or injured.

Reporters were shown the airstrike damage by Libyan officials, including one who said Mr. Qaddafi and his family had moved away from the Bab al-Aziziya compound some time ago. There was speculation that the colonel had moved into the Rixos hotel, where foreign journalists have been sequestered.

It was at the Rixos that Mr. Qaddafi reportedly met with tribal leaders on Wednesday.

Libyan officials initially said three people were killed and 27 wounded in Thursday’s air raids, and later said that four others were killed in an earlier strike on Wednesday.

Mr. Ibrahim said a ground-penetrating “bunker-buster” bomb appeared to have been used in the attack Thursday, which he said hit a “sewage location,” according to Agence-France Presse.

NATO, which has hit the Libyan capital repeatedly this week, said Thursday’s attack successfully hit “a large command and control bunker complex in downtown Tripoli that was used to coordinate attacks against civilian populations.”

Early on Friday, an anti-government activist in the Libyan capital said there had been protests this week in at least three neighborhoods in the capital, accompanied by exchanges of gunfire between opposition activists and Mr. Qaddafi’s forces.

He said he saw in one neighborhood, Fashloum, there were soldiers flooding the area and patrolling the streets in vehicles. He said he did not personally see a demonstration there but heard from other activists that there was a brief gun battle in that area.

The activist’s report echoed those made earlier to AP by a local journalist and resident on Thursday. All spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals.

Britain said in talks it would supply police officers in revolt-held eastern Libya with uniforms and body armor, but so far—like other governments—is declining to provide military weapons.

The rebels control most of eastern Libya, while Mr. Qaddafi controls most of the west, including Tripoli. The besieged port city of Misrata, a city of half a million people about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, is the only revolt stronghold in the west. Local doctors say more than 1,000 of its residents have been killed in the fighting and shelling during the siege by the colonel’s forces.

Meanwhile, the protesters deployed two senior leaders to London and Washington to press for recognition and aid, buoyed by the protesters’ capture of a strategic airport serving the port of Misrata.

Mahmoud Jibril, who serves as the foreign minister of the protesters’ National Transition Council, was set to meet at the White House on Friday with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

Asked by CNN television what he expected from the talks, Mr. Jibril replied: “We need the recognition.”

The NTC wants Washington to recognize the body as “the sole legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people,” he said.

The senior Libyan figure has also been meeting senior congressional figures and other administration officials in Washington.

Another senior opposition leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, met in London with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who invited the NTC to open an office in London, its first foreign mission, AFP reported.

France, Italy, Qatar and Gambia have extended full diplomatic recognition to the protesters, but not Britain or the United States.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates of the US said the air war in Libya has cost the United States roughly $750 million (525 million euros) to date, more than the Pentagon’s initial estimate of $604 million.

(Mustapha Ajbaili, an editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: Mustapha.ajbaili@mbc.net. Abeer Tayel, also an editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: abeer.tayel@mbc.net)