NATO Rear Adm. Russell Harding, the deputy commander of the alliance’s operation in Libya, said Friday that NATO warplanes may indeed have hit rebel forces near the town of Brega on Thursday but offered no apology for what was apparently a deadly mistake.
The secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has issued a statement of regret over the rebel deaths apparently caused by the NATO airstrikes outside Brega.
“This is a very unfortunate incident. I strongly regret the loss of life,” Fogh Rasmussen said. “I can assure you that we do our utmost to avoid civilian casualties.”
Meanwhile, the first-ever United Nations ship containing tons of humanitarian supplies brought relief to the besieged city of Misurata. The ship, chartered by the World Food Program, included food and medical supplies for the tens of thousands of civilians trapped by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s armed forces inside the rebel-held city.
A NATO-led alliance that includes the U.S. is leading a battle to prevent Kadafi’s forces from hurting civilians in several parts of the country, especially the rebel-controlled east, where forces loyal and opposed to the longtime ruler of Libya have been locked in a battlefield stalemate.
NATO appeared to concede that for the second time in less than a week its actions may have resulted in the deaths of rebel forces.
“It would appear that two of our strikes yesterday [Thursday] may have resulted in the deaths of a number of [Transitional National Council] forces,” Harding said from Naples, Italy. He said that the seesaw fighting on the road to Ajdabiya, northeast of Brega, had made the situation extremely confusing and hard to track.
“The situation in the area is still very fluid, with tanks and other vehicles moving in different directions, making it very difficult to distinguish who may be operating them. In addition, until this time we had not seen the TNC operating tanks,” the British officer said.
He added that it was not NATO’s responsibility to try to improve lines of communication with the rebels in order to avoid more mistaken airstrikes.
“It is not for us, trying to protect civilians of whatever persuasion, to improve communications with those rebel forces,” he said.
World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran described the arrival of the relief ship in Misurata as “a breakthrough for the U.N. humanitarian operation in Libya.” He said it “allows us to reach tens of thousands of people who are caught in one of the fiercest areas of conflict.”
A former Libyan energy minister who escaped the city on a fishing boat told news outlets that Kadafi’s armed forces were subjecting civilians in Misurata to constant bombardment, shooting people at random and targeting their access to water supplies.
Omar Fathi bin Shatwan and his family arrived in the island nation of Malta days ago after escaping from Misurata, where he had been for nearly six weeks.
“They bombarded food stores, supermarkets, water supplies and the harbor,” he was quoted as saying. “It has been like this for so long that it has become natural for people. It is scary, but the fear becomes normal after a while.”
He also said that he saw no future for Kadafi or his sons in a future Libya. He claimed that more officials from the Kadafi regime were itching to defect as foreign minister Musa Kusa did, but were afraid to do so.
He urged NATO to quickly end the conflict by targeting all of Kadafi’s military equipment. “NATO is not doing the job well,” he said.