Rebels in the port city of Misrata said they took over the local airport Wednesday from Moammar Gadhafi's retreating forces, and the Libyan leader was seen on television after weeks of absence.
NATO airstrikes followed.
Gadhafi appeared on Libyan state television late Wednesday for several minutes. A camera filmed him from a distance as he sat with tribal leaders. He did not speak.
Gadhafi has not been seen or heard from since an April 30 NATO airstrike that killed one of his sons, Seif al-Arab Gadhafi. That led to rumors that Gadhafi himself was hit in the airstrike. His brief appearance, meeting with tribal leaders, was broadcast in Libyan TV. It appeared designed to squelch the rumors.
The camera zoomed in the date shown on a television screen close to Gadhafi. It read Wednesday, May 11.
Gadhafi wore large black sunglasses and a hat as he stiffly hugged tribal leaders who appeared less than enthusiastic as they greeted the Libyan leader. The backdrop of mirrors, plush beige carpets and white furniture suggested that Gadhafi sneaked into an upscale hotel where foreign reporters are staying in Tripoli.
Government officials would not confirm that information.
At least four air strikes appeared to target central Tripoli overnight. Their crashing sound was clearly audible from the hotel where foreign journalists are staying in the Libyan capital.
Wailing ambulances were heard minutes after the last missile exploded, along with the thundering sound of military aircraft.
Government officials and state-run Libyan television said the NATO strikes early Thursday targeted Bab al-Azaziya, Gadhafi's sprawling compound in Tripoli. They did not say which of the compound's buildings were targeted.
At the nearby Khadra Hospital, medics wheeled in two men they said were killed in the shelling. One of the men was completely blackened and charred, his hands pausing mid-chest as if trying to defend himself when he died. The other man's body covered by a green blanket, his lifeless leg dangling from the stretcher.
From the bus ferrying reporters to the hospital, smoke could be seen pluming from part of the Gadhafi compound. Skid marks left from screeching vehicles crisscrossed the roads around it.
The medics said others had been killed by the airstrikes and were still being retrieved from the compound.
NATO strikes earlier this week hit an intelligence building and another structure used by parliamentarians.
The reported rebel advance was the latest in a sudden flurry of accounts of opposition victories, coming in tandem with intensified NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi's forces in several regions.
Even though some of the combat reports are difficult to confirm, they seem to represent a major boost for the rebels prospects' after weeks of stalemate in their effort to end Gadhafi's 42-year rule over Libya.
According to a rebel who identified himself as Abdel Salam, rebels were in total control of the airport in Misrata's southern outskirts after two days of fighting. He said five rebels were killed and 105 injured.
"This is a major victory," he said. "The Gadhafi forces have been suffering lack of supplies ... Their morale was very low after being defeated several times and pushed back."
Misrata rebels are also pushing west, toward the nearby city of Zlitan, and then advance farther in the direction of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
"The main goal is to topple down the tyrant and to liberate the capital," Abdel Salam said. "Now Misrata is free ... Gadhafi can't get in here."
Symbolic victory?The rebel victory in Misrata would be important symbolically but fighting for control of oil fields and pipelines far away in the interior of the country would probably determine the outcome of the war, defense and military expert Shashank Joshi told msnbc.com.
"The key development is really the capture of the Misrata airport — the rebels have been hemmed in for weeks," said the associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British thinktank. "But it is not strategically important."
He warned against expecting a speedy end to the conflict, calling it a "long grinding war and stalemate."
Another front where the rebels claim recent gains is near the eastern city of Ajdabiya. Rebels at a checkpoint outside the city indicated fighting had subsided on Wednesday after a stretch of heavy ground combat that was coupled with NATO airstrikes.
NATO said Tuesday it had conducted more than 6,000 sorties since it assumed command of the aerial operation over Libya on March 31. More than 2,400 of those were airstrikes, a statement said.
It said alliance warplanes struck six vehicle storage depots near Tripoli on Monday, along with a surface-to-air launcher and an anti-aircraft gun. Four ammunition depots were also hit in other parts of Libya.
A rebel website, freelibya.com, said there were unconfirmed reports that opposition fighters seized a police station in Tripoli. There was no immediate comment from Gadhafi's regime.
In Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for "an immediate, verifiable cease-fire" in Libya, and said Gadhafi's government had agreed to another visit by a special envoy.
Ban said he spoke with Libya's prime minister by phone late Tuesday to urge a cease-fire and demand unimpeded access for U.N. humanitarian workers in Libya. He also called on Gadhafi's forces to stop attacking civilians.
Ban said the prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, agreed to receive a special U.N. envoy who would now travel to Tripoli to undertake "negotiations for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and unimpeded access for humanitarian workers."