NATO Strike Kills 12 Libyan Rebels in Misurata

April 27th, 2011 - by admin

C. J. Chivers / The New York Times – 2011-04-27 22:35:45

MISURATA, Libya (April 27, 2011) — At least one NATO warplane attacked a rebel position on the front lines of this besieged city on Wednesday, a rebel commander said, killing 12 fighters and wounding five others in what he called an accident that could have been avoided.

The rebels were at first reluctant to admit the killings had occurred, saying they did not want to discourage further airstrikes against the forces of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, which have been shelling Misurata and pounding it with ground-to-ground rocket fire.

The pace of NATO strikes had picked up noticeably in recent days, after rebel leaders complained of a lack of support since the United States turned over operational control of the air campaign to NATO at the end of March.

But as the bodies of the fighters who had been killed were being collected at a medical clinic in the Qasr Ahmed neighborhood, a grieving rebel commander, Abdullah Mohammed, provided an account of the errant strikes.

Mr. Mohammed said that as pro-Qaddafi forces tried to outflank the city’s port from the east in recent days, rebels moved into a salt factory and fortified it as a blocking position. They first occupied the building on Tuesday, he said, and informed NATO of their presence.

They continued to occupy the building, and on Wednesday they were struck from the air around 4:30 p.m. “We stayed in exactly the same place,” he said. “And they hit it.”

As he spoke, women were wailing on the clinic’s steps. At least two strikes hit the building, Mr. Mohammed said, which was a little more than a mile from the nearest loyalist position. Before the rebels moved into the building on Tuesday, he said, it had been empty.

This was not the first time that NATO warplanes had struck the rebels. In early April, NATO admitted its warplanes twice hit rebel positions, killing more than a dozen men, and it expressed regret after the second strike. NATO could not be immediately reached for comment on this latest occurrence.

Mr. Mohammed said he hoped NATO would learn from its mistakes and not repeat them. But he added, “We hope this does not delay strikes on our enemy.”

The fight for Libya continued on other fronts. At a remote border crossing in the country’s mountainous southwest, rebels worked feverishly to build defenses as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces bore down on them, Reuters reported.

The rebels seized the crossing last week, allowing them to resupply rebel-held towns and cities that had been running short of food, fuel, water and medical supplies in a siege imposed by the government forces in early April.

Earlier Wednesday, a ferry chartered by an international aid organization docked in Misurata’s besieged port and returned to sea after taking aboard more than 800 stranded migrant workers.

The ferry, the Panamanian-flagged Red Star I, had been held off the coast overnight on Tuesday as Qaddafi forces pummeled Misurata and its harbor with ground-to-ground rocket fire. The rockets fell even though the organization that had chartered the vessel, the International Organization for Migration, had provided the Qaddafi government with the aid ship’s plans.

“We notified everybody of our mission,” said Othman Belbeisi, the relief mission’s leader. “Everybody knows, and everybody should know.”

Dawn found the vessel anchored just off the coast. Its crew was uncertain whether it would try to dock or turn back for Benghazi, the rebel capital, a roughly 20-hour voyage away.

Mr. Belbeisi said the ship should try to reach the harbor in the morning. At 8:45 a.m. the word came over the vessel’s intercom: “Crew on standby, crew on standby.” Its engines shuddered to life.

By 10 a.m. the Red Star I had entered the port unescorted, as dark smoke billowed in the air. The effects of the shelling were visible in holes in warehouse roofs and in a blackened shipping container beside where the vessel tied up, from which smoke also rose.

After the port’s employees unloaded a couple of ambulances and 10 containers of food and medical supplies, the human cargo began to arrive — hundreds of migrant workers, most of them from Niger, crammed into trucks. They were a forlorn sight, crowds of exhausted men between a smoldering container and a ferry with a jittery crew. They formed into long lines, many with nothing more than a blanket and single piece of luggage.

They spoke of their weeks of waiting to be evacuated from the country to which they had come for work, only to be stranded by war. Adel Ibrahim Moussa eyed the ship. “I will go home now, God willing,” he said. When the war began, more than 10,000 migrant workers were stranded in Misurata. Many have been living in camps since February, exposed to the elements and occasional violence and shelling.

The weeks of shelling in Misurata have continued even as the pro-Qaddafi forces have pulled back and been driven by the rebels from much of the city.

While still cut off overland by pro-Qaddafi forces, the rebels were fighting Qaddafi holdouts at the city’s edge. Along and near Tripoli Street, a main boulevard and the site of intensive fighting this month, lightly armed rebels wandered the ruins, mingling with shopkeepers who had returned to claim what remained of their goods.

In one shop, a family packed away leather belts and shoes. In another, the owners pointed to a cluster-munitions canister on the floor as they looked at the shattered display cases that formerly held cellphones.

Abdul Skair, 28, surveyed the wreckage. Before him was a cityscape of barricades, roasted cars, shattered glass and burned storefronts. The red ribbons of expended cluster munitions littered the streets, bits of color among the rubble.

“Qaddafi is No. 1 for terror,” he said angrily.

The rebels now control most of Misurata, but lack heavy weapons and as yet have not taken control of the airport. They worry as well that the Qaddafi forces will still try to seize the harbor, cutting off the city’s sole source of supply.

Fighting continued in the afternoon at the end of Tripoli Street, where a remaining pocket of loyalist troops exchanged gunfire with rebels. The Qaddafi forces still held the approaches to the city, and positions beyond the range of the rebels’ weapons from where they could strike the city with artillery and ground-to-ground rocket fire.

More than 1,000 residents of the city, and an untold number of pro-Qaddafi soldiers, have been killed in the siege, medical officials say. Since the war started, it has been difficult to get an accurate count of fatalities, because many deaths go unreported.

In Washington on Wednesday, the United States ambassador to Libya, Gene A. Cretz, said that American officials had seen estimates of the dead from the violence in Libya ranging from 10,000 to as many as 30,000 people, Reuters reported. He did not offer any explanation or any supporting evidence for that estimate.

Whatever the number of fatalities, officials in Misurata said the humanitarian costs have climbed, with electricity rationed, many medicines in short supply, schools and businesses closed and the rockets and artillery rounds continuing to fall.

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