Tripoli, Libya – NATO acknowledged Saturday that its aircraft had mistakenly hit a column of rebel military vehicles last week near the Libyan oil port of Brega, and early Sunday morning the Qaddafi government showed reporters a destroyed cinder-block house that neighbors and the government said was hit by an errant NATO airstrike in the capital.
Two bodies were pulled from the rubble, and at the Tripoli Central Hospital, government officials showed reporters three others, including an infant and a child, who they said were killed in the house.
It was the first time in three months of airstrikes that the Qaddafi government has presented credible evidence of what appeared to be direct civilian casualties of NATO attacks. Although the government has often claimed large numbers of civilian deaths, it has never previously presented bodies or consistent facts about the dead.
The destroyed building was far from any obvious military facility, in the Souq al Juma area, which is known for its hostility to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, and some neighbors who said they opposed him nonetheless confirmed the government’s account of an airstrike. Still, journalists visiting the site found no pieces of a bomb. NATO could not be reached for comment, and it was impossible to rule out another explanation.
Neighbors said that three or more families lived in the building, and government officials said it housed 15 people in an extended family with the last name al-Ghrari. Moussa Ibrahim, a Qaddafi government spokesman, called the leaders of the NATO countries criminals and said they were “planting the seeds of hatred for generations to come.”
The number of casualties from the strike on the convoy of vehicles, meanwhile, could not be determined.
“We regret any possible loss of life or injuries caused by this unfortunate incident,” NATO said in a statement. The attack was at least the third such episode since the air campaign began three months ago.
The strike, which occurred Thursday, took place against a backdrop of blurry battle lines as the rebels challenging Colonel Qaddafi pushed against his forces near Brega in the east, outside Zlitan in the midcoast, and in the Nafusa Mountains to the west. The fighting on each of the three fronts has been mired in a back-and-forth pattern without much movement for about five days, and Qaddafi forces have been using civilian vehicles like pickup trucks, just as the rebels do, in an apparent effort to confuse NATO.
In this case, NATO said in its statement, its surveillance had spotted the column of military vehicles, which included tanks, in an area where Qaddafi forces “had recently been operating.” The statement added, “In a particularly complex and fluid battle scenario, it was assessed these vehicles were a threat to civilians.”
In April, NATO admitted its planes twice hit rebel positions, killing more than a dozen men.
Around the same time as Thursday’s mistaken strike, rebels based in the city of Misurata were complaining that NATO had been telling their fighters to hold back from the battlefront near Zlitan to avoid getting caught in attacks on Qaddafi forces there. The rebels said NATO had failed to deliver the promised attacks on the Qaddafi forces and in the process slowed the rebel advance.
“If it wasn’t for NATO, we could have moved the combat line much further from Misurata,” said Mohamed, a rebel spokesman, though it is far from clear that the rebels could have held their ground without NATO support. The spokesman’s full name was withheld to protect his family.