Thirteen rebel fighters were killed in a NATO airstrike, the opposition’s chief spokesman said Saturday, but the attack drew little anger against the West as fighters continued to rely on the alliance’s warplanes to hold off Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
The incident late Friday came as North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes struck government forces’ positions on the edges of Port Brega, a contested city on the edge of rebel-controlled eastern territory.
Spokesman Abdelhafed Ghoga, calling the strike “a regrettable incident,” made clear that the opposition wanted the West’s help in fighting Kadafi.
“It was an error in the placement of the revolutionaries,” he said.
The loss of fighters drew unwanted attention to the rawness of the opposition’s recruits. Some fighters and medical aides near the front lines outside Port Brega said Saturday that the rebels had probably let loose with celebratory gunfire after witnessing a NATO strike or capturing some Kadafi fighters.
When asked, Ghoga declined to answer whether the fighters had shot off rounds, thereby causing NATO pilots to believe they were under attack.
Another opposition spokesman underlined the importance of continued airstrikes even if some of the rebel fighters died.
“We are willing to accept collateral damage for the greater good of shortening the duration of the war and saving more lives,” Mustafa Gheriani said.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance was investigating the reports but could not yet confirm what had happened.
“We are taking every care to ensure that no human life is lost through NATO strikes,” Lungescu told the BBC. “If someone fires against our aircraft, they do have the right to respond.... We regret any loss of civilian life.”
Dr. Ahmed Gnashi came to rescue the wounded from the bombing site late Friday night.
“Vehicles were totally burnt,” he said. “I saw eight or nine bodies.” He added that he hadn’t been able to tell whether the disfigured corpses were rebels or government fighters.
On Saturday, the stalemate between Kadafi’s forces and the rebels in the east continued as opposition fighters once more lined the roads outside Port Brega, which government troops retook late Wednesday. Some shouting matches broke out as rebel soldiers tried to prevent convoys of men with rocket launchers from heading into the range of enemy fire.