The Libyan government on Friday denied rebel reports that Moammar Gadhafi's youngest son was killed in a NATO airstrike on a front-line town in western Libya.
Early Friday, officials in the rebel's de facto capital of Benghazi said that Khamis Gadhafi was among 32 troops killed in a NATO strike early Friday on a government operations center in Zlitan.
But in Tripoli, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said Khamis is alive and spoke to Libyan government officials Friday to confirm his well-being. "He is OK and alive, and they (reports of death) are just lies," Kaim told The Associated Press.
A NATO official at operations headquarters in Naples said he was aware of the report but could not confirm it.
"We cannot confirm anything right now, because we don't have people on the ground, but we are trying to find out what we can," he said.
Kaim said the rebels spread reports of Khamis' death to "distract attention" from the killing late last month of rebel military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis.
The rebel leadership has insisted Younis' assassination was the work of the Gadhafi regime, but several witnesses say Younis was killed by fellow rebels. The slaying has fueled concerns about unity within the revel movement nearly six months after the revolt began.
If true, the death of Khamis Gadhafi would be a severe blow to his father's bid to resist a six-month-old NATO-backed uprising and remain in power.
Khamis is head of Libya's 32nd Brigade, one of Gadhafi's most professional and loyal units, which has been fighting in Zlitan, which lies between the rebel-held city of Misrata and the capital Tripoli.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said it had carried out airstrikes on Tuesday and Wednesday against buildings, staging posts and a tank being used by Gadhafi forces near Zlitan.
The Gadhafi government said earlier this year that a NATO airstrike had killed another of Gadhafi's sons, Saif al-Arab, who had a much lower public profile and no major leadership role.
Rebels who cleared Gadhafi's forces from Libya's third largest city of Misrata have been trying for weeks to push westward and take Zlitan, which would open the coastal road toward his Tripoli stronghold.
No swift exit
Gadhafi has so far remained in control of Tripoli despite severe fuel shortages and rebel advances on three fronts, backed since March by Western airstrikes.
He has defied hopes in Western states of a swift exit, forcing them to await progress on political and military fronts.
The rebels face their own problems, from stalling battlefield momentum to internal splits, exposed starkly last week when military chief Abdel Fattah Younes was killed in circumstances that have yet to be fully explained.
Fighting has slowed since breakneck advances and retreats over Libya's desert terrain in the uprising's early days.