NATO Admits Errant Air Strike in Libya: 9 Civilians Killed

Libyan officials reported that an errant NATO missile had destroyed a civilian home in a residential neighborhood in the capital on Sunday and killed nine civilians, including two children. Later NATO acknowledged this information.

According to Libyan officials 9 civilians were killed in the NATO air strike Sunday morning including 2 children. Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

“It appears that one weapon did not strike the intended target and that there may have been a weapons system failure which may have caused a number of civilian casualties,” the statement issued by NATO late Sunday at Brussels headquarters said.

Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the commander of the Libyan mission, said in the statement that “NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives.” He also blamed a possible ‘weapons system failure.’ NATO said it had conducted 11,500 sorties “with tremendous care to minimize civilian casualties.”

The Libyan government on the other hand has often claimed that the strikes have killed hundreds of civilians. Sunday’s air strike, according to Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, destroyed a home had housed 15 members of an extended family named al-Ghrari. He said it killed nine civilians, including two children.

In a statement in response to the attack, the Libyan foreign minister, Abdulati al-Obeidi, said the incident should serve as “a direct call for all free peoples of the world and for all Muslims to initiate a global jihad” against what he describes as “the oppressive, criminal West.” Libya’s information ministry, however, insisted that the call for jihad was no reason for violence.

Khalid Kaim, a deputy foreign minister, arrived at the scene not long after the attack and told journalists it gave the lie to NATO’s stated mission of protecting civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s wrath for challenging his rule. He said: “We have seen who is attacking civilians. They are targeting houses and flats. Tomorrow they will target schools and hospitals.”

Early Sunday morning, journalists based in the Libyan capital were rushed by government officials to the damaged building, which appeared to have been partly under construction. Later reporters were later transported back to the site, where children’s toys, teacups and dust-covered mattresses could be seen amid the rubble.

Journalists were shown the bodies of 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.

There were no indications of any military facility in the area. Children’s shoes, diapers, a woman’s dress and kitchen tools lay among the ruins. The blast knocked the top off the structure, leaving a concrete staircase reaching into the air. Several carports on the block collapsed and crushed the vehicles within.

NATO’s admission was the alliance’s first in the three-month-long campaign of airstrikes against the military forces of Libyan leader Muammar Al Qaddafi. It was also NATO’s second admission of a mistaken strike in two days.

Before Sunday’s alleged strike, Libya’s Health Ministry said 856 civilians had been killed in NATO air attacks since they began in March when a coalition including France, Britain and the U.S. launched the first strikes against Gaddafi’s forces under a U.N. resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO, joined by some Arab allies, assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31.

On Saturday, NATO acknowledged inadvertently hitting a rebel convoy of tanks and military vehicles moving around the front near the eastern oil port of Brega. That was NATO’s third strike to accidentally hit rebels.

US defense secretary Robert Gates has been extremely critical of NATO’s command of the Libya operation, speaking against the management and execution of the campaign last week. After an initial bombing campaign run by the Americans, the alliance took over the air war and Gates warned that NATO may not be up to the task.

Gates said: “The mightiest military alliance in history is only eleven weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country – yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference”. He also suggested that the main issue has been the lack of military investment on the part of many NATO nations.

“For all but a handful of allies, defence budgets – in absolute terms, as a share of economic output – have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time, with the shortfalls compounding on themselves each year,” he said. [via The New York Times and  The Tripoli Post]

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