* NATO chief says Gaddafi weakened by bombing campaign
* NATO strikes hit government weapons depots outside Zintan
* EU considers tightening oil sanctions
* Ship burns in Tripoli harbour. Government blames NATO
By Alister Bull and Joseph Logan
WASHINGTON/TRIPOLI, May 20 U.S. President Barack
Obama said on Thursday it was inevitable Libyan leader Muammar
Gaddafi would have to leave power and only then could a
democratic transition in the North African state proceed.
Obama was speaking in a major address about the Middle East
where a series of uprisings this year have toppled governments
in Tunisia and Egypt, and inspired a three-month-old revolt in
Libya that aims to overthrow Gaddafi after 41 years in power.
"Time is working against Gaddafi. He does not have control
over his country. The opposition has organised a legitimate and
credible Interim Council," Obama said in Washington.
"When Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power,
decades of provocation will come to an end and the transition to
a democratic Libya can proceed," he said, defending his decision
to take military action against the Libyan leader's government.
His comments echoed NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh
Rasmussen who said military and political pressure were
weakening Gaddafi and would eventually topple him.
"Obama is still delusional," Libyan government spokesman
Mussa Ibrahim told reporters. "He believes the lies that his own
government and media spread around the world ... It's not Obama
who decides whether Muammar Gaddafi leaves Libya or not. It's
the Libyan people."
Acting under a U.N. mandate, NATO allies including France,
Britain and the United States are conducting air strikes that
aim to stop Gaddafi using military force against civilians.
In some of the latest strikes, NATO hit Gaddafi's forces
around 15 km (9 miles) east of the rebel-held town of Zintan in
the Western Mountains region. The town and the port city of
Misrata have seen some of the heaviest fighting in recent weeks.
A Reuters reporter in Zintan said NATO strikes on a
government weapons depot outside the city sent plumes of smoke
into the sky. Government shelling of rebel positions near the
town killed at least one rebel and wounded three, a medical
official in the town said.
More on Libya [nLDE72H00G]
More on Middle East unrest: [nTOPMEAST] [nLDE73H1UN]
Libya graphics link.reuters.com/neg68r
Graphic on Libya refugees r.reuters.com/kew39r
NATO bombs struck Tripoli, Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and
Zlitan east of the capital, state TV said late on Thursday.
Officials later took journalists to Tripoli port where a
small ship which they said had been hit by NATO spewed smoke and
Rebels control eastern Libya and pockets in the west but the
conflict has reached a stalemate as rebel attempts to advance on
Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli have stalled.
Western governments, under pressure from sceptical voters,
are counting on Gaddafi's administration to collapse.
"We have significantly degraded Gaddafi's war machine. And
now we see results, the opposition has gained ground," Rasmussen
told a news conference in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.
"I am confident that a combination of strong military
pressure and increased political pressure and support for the
opposition will eventually lead to the collapse of the regime."
LIBYA TV SHOWS GADDAFI
Libyan state TV showed footage of Gaddafi meeting a Libyan
politician in Tripoli, who government spokesman Ibrahim said had
been part of a delegation that met Russian officials in Moscow
this week to explore possibilities for a ceasefire.
The footage zoomed in on a TV screen in the room that showed
Thursday's date displayed in the corner. The leader wore a brown
robe with a hat and sunglasses.
Gaddafi was last seen on May 11 when state TV showed him
meeting tribal leaders in Tripoli. NATO bombed his compound the
next day, and a day later TV broadcast an audio clip in which he
taunted NATO and said the alliance could not kill him.
Diplomats are watching reports that the country's top oil
official, Shokri Ghanem, has left Libya. Ibrahim denied Ghanem
had defected and said he was on official business in Tunisia,
some European countries and probably Egypt, and would return.
The last few days have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity
focusing on a possible ceasefire deal.
But Western powers are likely to stress their determination
to keep the pressure on Gaddafi when heads of state from the
Group of Eight industrialised nations meet on May 27-28.
In an attempt to raise pressure on Tripoli, the European
Union is considering tightening sanctions by blacklisting some
Libyan ports to prevent exports of oil and imports of fuel, a
Western diplomatic source told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Martin Santa in Bratislava, Isabel
Coles in Cairo, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Tarek Amara and Sylvia
Westall in Tunis, Matt Robinson in Zintan and Emma Farge, Peter
Apps, Dmitry Zhdannikov and William Maclean in London, Writing
by Matthew Bigg; Editing by David Stamp)