Libyan rebels confirm NATO airstrike killed 13 of their own
Accept blame for ‘accident’ and say it’s the cost of war
BENGHAZI, Libya — A NATO airstrike intended to thwart Moammar Khadafy’s forces killed 13 rebel fighters in eastern Libya instead, the opposition said yesterday, but they described it as an “unfortunate accident’’ and stressed it did not diminish their support for the international air campaign.
The rebels’ response to the attack — blaming it on a mistake within their ranks — highlighted their heavy dependence on the international air campaign as they face the superior military power of the longtime Libyan leader. The error also showed the challenges the coalition faces in identifying targets without coordination with forces on the ground.
“As regrettable as it may be, we understand that we might have to give up lives for the greater good. We have to look at the bigger picture,’’ opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said. “This is a war and the lines are so fluid going back and forth, so it’s natural that mistakes will happen.’’
The slain fighters were hit Friday night as they moved forward, attempting to take back the oil city of Brega, while airstrikes were in progress. Seven fighters were wounded. Another opposition spokesman, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, said it was an example of the lack of coordination in the ranks that has proven a key obstacle to victory over the more organized Libyan military.
Rebels without training — sometimes even without weapons — have rushed in and out of fighting in a free-for-all for more than six weeks, repeatedly getting trounced by Khadafy’s more heavily armed forces. But ex-military officers who have joined the rebel side have stepped up training efforts and taken a greater role in the fight.
“This unfortunate accident was a mistake that was caused by the rebels’ advance during the coalition’s attack,’’ Ghoga said. “Now the military leadership that has been organized more effectively recently is working on preventing the recurrence of these accidents.’’
Rebels in the field had previously said some of their comrades were killed by an airstrike Friday but Ghoga’s comments provided the first confirmation.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance was investigating the reports, and appeared to suggest that its aircraft on patrol had encountered ground fire and retaliated.
“The exact details are hard to verify because we have no reliable source on the ground,’’ Lungescu said. “Clearly, if someone fires at one of our aircraft they have the right to defend themselves.’’
Mohammad Bedrise, a doctor in a nearby hospital, said three burned bodies had been brought in by men who said they had been hit after firing a heavy machine gun in the air in celebration. Idris Kadiki, a 38-year-old mechanical engineer, said he had seen an ambulance and three cars burning after an airstrike.
Rebels said the fighters were hit about 12 miles east of Brega, which has gone back and forth between rebel and government hands in recent weeks.
NATO, which on Thursday took over what had been a US-led military campaign to stop Khadafy from attacking his own people, also is investigating whether other airstrikes have killed civilians in western Libya, as the Libyan government claims. The United States, meanwhile, was ending its role in combat missions yesterday, leaving that work for other nations.
Rebels control much of eastern Libya, but in the west the only significant city they hold is Misrata, which has been besieged for weeks by Khadafy’s forces who have cut off water, power, and food supplies.
Medical officials said yesterday that government forces killed 37 civilians over the past two days in a campaign of shelling and sniper fire and an attack that burned down the city’s main stocks of flour and sugar.
Over the past month and a half, 243 people have been killed and some 1,000 wounded, according to the medical officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
The hospital official in Misrata said Khadafy’s forces were trying to pummel the port, hoping to cut off the city’s last line to the outside world. He said tanks positioned on the city’s east fired shells toward the area. Other Khadafy troops in civilian cars sped to the area, firing mortars and then fleeing, he said.
Khadafy’s forces have shelled the city’s outskirts and residents are piling into the heart of Misrata, crowding into the homes of relations and even unfinished buildings, the hospital official said. The reports could not be independently confirmed.