LA BAGNAIA, Italy (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has likely been wounded in western airstrikes and has probably left Tripoli, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Friday.
A Libyan government spokesman immediately denied that Gaddafi had been harmed.
Frattini told reporters that he believed what he had been told by Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, the Catholic bishop in Tripoli, that Gaddafi had probably left Tripoli and had probably even been wounded by NATO airstrikes.
“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 Gaddafi is very probably outside Tripoli and is probably also wounded. We don’t know where or how,” Frattini said.
“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.”
Asked about the Libyan denial, Frattini said he still believed what Martinelli said.
In a separate interview published on the website of the Corriere della Sera, Frattini also said that he did not believe that Libyan TV footage of Gaddafi greeting tribal leaders on Wednesday was authentic.
“I strongly doubted that those images were taken on that day and above all in Tripoli,” Frattini said.
“There are people on the ground who have the pulse of the situation ... Among many others I am referring to Bishop Martinelli, who has had, and still has, close relations with the regime,” he said.
He added: “The international pressure has likely led Gaddafi to decide to seek shelter in a safe location. I tend to think that he fled Tripoli, not Libya.”
An official at the NATO operations center in Naples repeated NATO’s line that it was not targeting individuals in bombing raids that have hit Libyan capital and said the alliance had no way to confirm Frattini’s comments.
“We can’t verify that as we don’t have any way of tracking his movements,” the official said. “We don’t have boots on the ground.”
Contacted from Rome, Martinelli’s office said the bishop had left Tripoli for Tunis. The bishop himself was not reachable.
As the Vatican’s top official in Tripoli, Martinelli has been in contact with Gaddafi’s entourage.
The Italian prelate joined a Muslim cleric in blessing the bodies of Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandchildren who were killed in a NATO air raid on April 30.
Since the start of the NATO operation, Martinelli has been highly outspoken and critical of the military strikes, saying that many civilians had been killed.
Writing by Silvia Aloisi; Additional reporting by Joseph Logan; Editing by Giles Elgood