A NATO airstrike in the besieged rebel-held city of Misurata mistakenly killed 12 Libyan rebels, an official with the transitional government confirmed Thursday, while new fighting was reported on Libya’s western border with Tunisia.
The strike Wednesday was at least the third reported friendly fire incident since North Atlantic Treaty Organization fighter jets began pounding forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi more than five weeks ago in a mission to protect Libyan civilians.
Leaders of the anti-Kadafi forces have labeled the incidents unfortunate accidents in a worthy cause, reflecting wide support in rebel ranks for the NATO strikes.
Nonetheless, both NATO and the rebels have said additional precautions — such as marking rebel vehicles and reporting precise positions to NATO — have been employed to avoid further tragedies.
“It is regrettable, but we know the people of Misurata understand,” said Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a press liaison with the transitional council, who confirmed the death toll. “We know NATO didn’t do this on purpose.”
There was no immediate response from North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials.
NATO’s bombing campaign is widely seen as having prevented Kadafi forces from retaking rebel-held territory, including the eastern city of Benghazi, de facto capital of the opposition. Despite the deadly friendly fire episodes, rebel officials have urged their international allies to step up the air campaign against the Kadafi regime.
Two previous inadvertent NATO strikes on anti-Kadafi forces left at least 18 rebels dead and many injured.
Reports from the scene indicated that Wednesday’s strike occurred near Misurata’s port, which has been a lifeline for supplies into the city and refugees going out. NATO has been bombarding loyalist forces shelling the port area.
In weeks of difficult battle, rebel fighters managed to dislodge Kadafi forces from the center of Misurata, commanders say, but regime loyalists based outside the center continue pounding the town and its port with artillery fire and rockets.
Three more people were killed Thursday in rocket or mortar attacks on Misurata, said a doctor contacted via Internet telephone. The death toll Wednesday was seven, he said.
Meanwhile, in far western Libya, Reuters news agency reported that pro-Kadafi forces had retaken a strategic border post along the Tunisian frontier that rebels had captured a week ago. Libyan soldiers hoisted their flag at the Dehiba-Wazin border crossing, said Reuters, which reported that fighting had also broken out in Tunisian territory.
The government in Tunis did not comment on the report. Tunisia has taken in thousands of Libyans who have fled the fighting in their homeland.
Though the rebel stronghold remains in the east, insurgents are also battling Kadafi forces in the Western Mountains area near the Tunisian border.
Fighting was also reported in the remote southeastern town of Kufra, where, Reuters said, Libyan state television asserted that the government had seized full control, though the rebels denied that the town had fallen.
Times staff writer Ned Parker contributed to this report.