Libyan officials said yesterday a NATO strike had hit a civilian house in the capital and killed several residents, an allegation which, if confirmed, could sow fresh doubts inside the alliance about its mission in Libya.
Reporters were taken to a residential area and saw a body pulled out of the rubble of a destroyed building.
Later, in a hospital, they were shown the bodies of a child and two others who, officials said, were among a total of seven people killed in the strike.
“There was intentional and deliberate targeting of the civilian houses,” Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told reporters at the site. “This is another sign of the brutality of the West.”
NATO made no immediate comment about the air strike, but has said in the past it only targets military or command-and-control sites. There was no way for reporters to verify that all the bodies they were shown came from the building.
Libyan claims of civilian casualties from NATO attacks have sometimes been skeptically received by international observers. On one occasion, Libyan officials presented a wounded child as the victim of an air strike, but medical staff passed a note to a foreign journalist saying she was hurt in a road accident. Libyan authorities have to date been unable to prove that substantial numbers of civilians have been killed by the NATO strikes, but if that changes it could weaken the already wavering commitment of some alliance members.
NATO has been pounding targets in Libya for months in what the alliance says is an operation to protect civilians who rebelled against the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Strains are appearing within NATO member states as the campaign drags on for longer than most of its backers anticipated and Qaddafi remains in power — even making a show of defiance last week by playing chess with a visiting official.
Rebels from the city of Misrata, about 200km east of Tripoli, have been trying to push west toward the capital, but yesterday they took heavy casualties when they came under fire from pro-Qaddafi forces.
Four fighters were killed and 18 wounded, according to a doctor at a field hospital near the front line in Dafniyah, an area just west of Misrata.
A reporter at the field hospital said he saw a procession of pick-up trucks arriving from the front carrying the wounded and the dead, some of them covered up with blankets.
“Qaddafi’s forces were underground [in trenches]. We were patrolling and they ambushed us,” said rebel fighter Mohammed Swelhi, whose friend, Mustafa, was one of two bodies brought from the front in the back of a truck.
“My cousin was injured yesterday and today my friend was killed. My group, we’re all close friends,” he said.
After four months of civil war, rebels control the eastern third of Libya, the Mediterranean port city of Misrata and much of the Western Mountains region stretching to the border with Tunisia.
However, they remain far from seizing their ultimate prize — Qaddafi’s powerbase of Tripoli and its hinterland — despite air support from the world’s most powerful military alliance.
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