Libyans want answers over deadly NATO airstrikes

May 14, 2012 - 10:36 AM
Mideast Libya Civilian Casualties

FILE - In a June 19, 2011, file photo made on a government-organized tour, Libyan doctors stand near bodies of a man and a baby found in the damaged residential building in Tripoli, Libya's, outskirts. Human Rights Watch is calling on NATO to provide compensation for Libyans who lost loved ones or had property damaged in airstrikes during the bombing campaign that helped rebels oust former leader Moammar Gadhafi. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Mohammed al-Gherari lost five family members, including a young niece and nephew, when NATO accidentally struck their compound in the Libyan capital as they slept.

Nearly a year later, his grief is compounded by threats and allegations from neighbors who believe he and others who survived the attack were harboring a regime loyalist or hiding weapons for Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

At least 72 civilians, a third of them under the age of 18, were killed by NATO airstrikes, according to a report released Monday by Human Rights Watch — one of the most extensive investigations into the issue. The New York-based advocacy group called on the Western alliance to acknowledge the casualties and compensate survivors.

The decision by the United States and its NATO allies to launch an air campaign that mainly targeted regime forces and military infrastructure marked a turning point in Libya's civil war, giving rebels a fighting chance. But Gadhafi's government and allies in Russia and China criticized the alliance for going beyond its U.N. mandate to protect civilians.

The number of Libyans killed or injured in airstrikes also emerged as a key issue in the war as Gadhafi's regime frequently exaggerated figures and NATO refused to comment on most claims, insisting all targets were military.

At one point, Libya's Health Ministry said 856 civilians had been killed in NATO's campaign, which began in March 2011, weeks after the uprising against Gadhafi that erupted with peaceful protests evolved into a civil war.

The U.N.-appointed International Commission of Inquiry on Libya said earlier this year that at least 60 civilians had been unintentionally killed and recommended further investigation.

Based on field research conducted in Libya from August 2011 through this April, Human Rights Watch established that 28 men, 20 women and 24 children — 72 civilians in all — had been killed in eight NATO bombings in Tripoli, Zlitan, Sorman, Bani Walid, Gurdabiya and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte.

The advocacy group noted the figure was relatively low considering the extent of the seven-month campaign, which the alliance has said included 9,600 strike missions and destroyed about 5,900 military targets. It ended after Gadhafi's death in late October.

But the group said it had documented several cases in which there clearly was no military target and criticized NATO for failing to acknowledge the deaths or to examine how and why they occurred.

In Brussels, NATO expressed regret for any civilian casualties but said it had carried out the bombing campaign with "unprecedented care and precision" and had fulfilled the requirements of international humanitarian law.

"NATO did everything possible to minimize risks to civilians, but in a complex military campaign, that risk can never be zero," spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said Monday. "We have reviewed all the information we hold as an organization and confirmed that the specific targets struck by NATO were legitimate military targets."

The alliance did not have troops on the ground during or after the conflict who could have independently checked the results of its airstrikes.

HRW recommended that NATO make public information about the intended military targets in cases where civilians were wounded or killed and provide "prompt and appropriate compensation" to families who suffered from the attacks.

The strike against al-Gherari's compound on June 19, 2011, was a rare case in which the Brussels-based alliance admitted at the time that it had made a mistake.

The Libyan government rushed a group of foreign journalists based in Tripoli to the site, eager to use the deaths as propaganda against the West. Children's toys, teacups and dust-covered mattresses could be seen amid the rubble, and journalists were shown the bodies of at least four people said to have been killed in the strike, including the two young children.

Al-Gherari said government officials disappeared shortly after the fanfare ended and the family received no compensation or financial assistance from either side. Meanwhile the NATO statement, which did not provide details, failed to satisfy neighbors.

"I want NATO to present a full explanation that the reason was a mistake because we're still facing accusations that Gadhafi or a higher regime figure was there and that's why our house was targeted," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He said five people were killed, including his 2-year-old nephew and a 7-month-old niece.

Lungescu, the NATO spokeswoman, said the June 19 strike targeted a missile site in Tripoli but that one weapon malfunctioned and NATO was unable to determine where it landed. "A review concluded it was possible that the failed weapon may have hit the house of the al-Gherari's family, which was not the intended target," she said.

Human Rights Watch said it visited the site in the Souk el-Juma neighborhood in August and December and "did not see any evidence of military activity such as weapons, ammunition or communications equipment." It also said satellite imagery showed no signs of military activity at the home.

The deadliest attack recorded by the rights group was in the rural village of Majer, south of the former rebel stronghold of Zlitan.

The first bomb hit a large, two-story house owned by Ali Hamid Gafez, a 61-year-old farmer. It was crowded with people who had fled the fighting in nearby areas. That was followed by three more bombs, leaving a total of 34 people killed, including many who had rushed to the site to help after the earlier explosions.

Human Rights Watch said it visited the area the day after the Aug. 8, 2011, strikes and found no evidence of military activity, although it did find one military-style shirt in the rubble.

"I'm wondering why they did this, why just our houses," one of the residents, Muammar al-Jarud, was quoted as saying in the report. "We'd accept it if we had tanks or military vehicles around, but we were completely civilians and you can't just hit civilians."

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Gamel reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report from Brussels.