12:37pm

Sun June 19, 2011
Africa

NATO: Libya Airstrike May Have Killed Civilians

NATO said Sunday one of its airstrikes in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, went astray and may have killed civilians. The statement came after the Libyan government accused the alliance of killing nine civilians in an airstrike on a residential neighborhood in the capital early Sunday.

The military alliance said the errant strike early Sunday may have been due to "a weapons system failure."

A NATO commander says the alliance "regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes."

The casualties are likely to provide supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime a fresh rallying point against the international intervention in Libya's civil war.

Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi told reporters nine civilians, including two children, were killed in the explosion and said 18 people were wounded. He said the strike was a "deliberate attack on a civilian neighborhood," and follows other alleged targeting of nonmilitary targets such as a hotel, oxygen factory and civilian vehicles.

"The deliberate bombing ... is a direct call for all free peoples of the world and for all Muslims to initiate a global jihad against the oppressive, criminal West and never to allow such criminal organizations as NATO to decide the future of other independent and sovereign nations," al-Obeidi said. He did not take questions.

A Libyan spokesman later clarified that the call for jihad did not mean a terroris attack on a Western city.

Shortly after the airstrikes before dawn Sunday, journalists based in the Libyan capital were rushed by government officials to the destroyed building, which appeared to have been partially under construction. Reporters were escorted back to the site during the day, where children's toys, teacups and dust-covered mattresses could be seen amid the rubble.

Journalists were shown at least four people said to have been killed in the strike, including the two young children. Foreign reporters in Tripoli are not allowed to travel and report freely and are almost always shadowed by government minders.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson says the neighborhood is known for having anti-Gadhafi residents.

Salem Ali Garadi, 51, who said his brother and sister were among the victims, said five people were killed.

Libya's Health Ministry says 856 civilians have been killed in NATO airstrikes since they began in March. The figure could not be independently confirmed. Previous government tolls from individual strikes have proven to be exaggerated.

The alliance appeared to strike the capital again Sunday afternoon. A number of explosions could be heard in the city, and smoke could be seen rising over the southern part of the capital.

NPR's Nelson says the incident poses problems for NATO.

"It certainly creates problems for the alliance at a time they're trying to get more support from members so that it's not just a few countries that are actually engaged in the campaign in Libya," she said. "Certainly with its mission being described as its mission being one described as protecting civilians this does not bode well for them."

While NATO warplanes have stepped up their campaign against Gadhafi's regime over the past week, fighting has intensified between rebels and government troops outside the port city of Misrata, the main rebel stronghold in western Libya.

For weeks, the rebels had been bottled up in the city, some 125 miles east of Tripoli. The eastern third of the country is under rebel control from their de facto capital, Benghazi.

On Sunday, Gadhafi's forces unleashed a heavy barrage of Grad rockets and mortars on the rebel front lines in Dafniya, about 15 miles west of Misrata. Muthana Issa, an official at Misrata's Hikma hospital, said four people had been killed and 16 wounded in the early hours of the bombardment.

As the barrage continued into the afternoon, a steady stream of pickup trucks rushed the wounded to a field hospital in Dafniya, where medics and volunteers quickly unloaded the dead from the back of the pickups and placed the wounded on stretchers. One truck pulled up with three bodies covered in blood.

"They are shelling us really badly today with everything — mortars, grads, heat-sensing weapons, anything you can imagine," said Mustafa, 30, who was helping drive the wounded from the front.

Doctors at the field hospital said they had stopped counting the wounded coming in because there were too many.

Gadhafi's forces also ambushed a group of rebels near Dafniya early Sunday with AK-47s and heavy machine guns, according to rebel fighter Mohammed Khalil. He said the fighting was intense, with the two sides as close as 50 meters from each other. Five rebels were killed in the ambush, he said.

A coalition including France, Britain and the United States launched the first strikes against Gadhafi's forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO, which is joined by a number of Arab allies, assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.