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Qaddafi Lashes Out at NATO Over Civilian Deaths During Airstrikes

Muammar Qaddafi

March 22: This image taken from Libyan State TV shows Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi as he talks to a large crowd in Bab El Azizia, Libya. (AP)

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Muammar al-Qaddafi lashed out at NATO over civilian casualties and said Libya is prepared to fight on, calling the alliance "murderers" after an airstrike on a close associate's family home.

A few hundred supporters, most of them women, gathered Thursday in Tripoli's Green Square hours after the speech, vowing to defend the Libyan leader against rebels seeking to oust him and NATO forces giving them air support.

Qaddafi also warned the alliance that its more than three-month mission in Libya is a "crusader's campaign" that could come back to haunt the West.

"What you are doing will rebound against you and against the world with destruction, desolation and terrorism. You are launching a second Crusader war that might extend to Africa, Europe and America," he said in an audio address first aired on Libyan state television late Wednesday.

The address was the first from the Libyan leader since NATO targeted a compound Monday owned by Khoweildi al-Hamidi, a longtime regime insider whose daughter is married to one of Qaddafi's sons.

Qaddafi blasted the alliance for that strike, calling NATO "criminals" and "savages" and asking rhetorically: "Is this house a military target?"

Libya says 19 people, including at least three children and other civilians, were killed in that strike. NATO has called that target a "command and control" center and says it regrets any civilian deaths.

That bombing came a day after NATO acknowledged that one of its airstrikes may have slammed into a civilian neighborhood in Tripoli. Libyan officials said nine civilians were killed in that strike, though a family member told reporters at the scene that five people died.

Reports of civilian deaths have provoked intense anger among Qaddafi supporters.

Pro-Qaddafi protesters rallying in Tripoli on Thursday railed against NATO for striking civilians. Some women at the demonstration came armed, vowing to fight to defend their country and its leader.

"Everyone is training (to fight) since high school for a day like today," said dentist Hanin Khalil, 30, an aging Beretta submachine gun slung over her shoulder. "Not only (I) have a weapon. All people have their weapons to protect themselves from NATO."

A coalition including France, Britain and the United States began striking Qaddafi's forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It's joined by a number of Arab allies.