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Libya opposition says another NATO airstrike has killed rebels

The alliance says it's looking into the incident near Port Brega, which the opposition says left four rebels dead.

April 07, 2011|By Ned Parker and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Rebel fighters comfort a comrade in the hospital in Ajdabiya, Libya.
Rebel fighters comfort a comrade in the hospital in Ajdabiya, Libya. (Youssef Boudlal / Reuters )

Reporting from Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya — Four Libyan rebels were killed in an airstrike Thursday that the opposition's top general blamed on NATO.

The incident followed the death of 13 rebels last weekend when a NATO warplane mistakenly opened fire on the fighters, according to the rebels' military command. The latest episode was met with frustration among the opposition's leaders, who accused the West of not moving aggressively to stop Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's forces as they besiege cities and advance on the rebels' battle positions.

The strikes occurred at 10:30 a.m. after the rebels had moved 20 tanks to the front in their battle to retake the refinery city of Port Brega, a key coastal installation that the fighters lost a week ago.

"People are asking us who we think bombed our tanks. We would assume it was the NATO by mistake, [by] friendly fire," said Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis.

At least four people were killed, including two medics, and 20 people were injured, Younis said. He described it as a precision airstrike that only NATO could have carried out. Four tanks were badly damaged, though Younis said the rebels had 400 tanks in their possession.

The general said he believed that NATO had offered an apology, though he had not seen the actual statement. He said NATO and the rebels were in constant contact.

After the strikes, Kadafi's forces advanced toward the city of Ajdabiya, but rebels drove them back to Port Brega, Younis said. He demanded to know why NATO had not targeted Kadafi's fighters before they retreated, and he said he wanted an explanation for the day's events.

"We are not questioning the intention of NATO, because they should be here to help us and the civilians, but we would like to receive some answers regarding what happened today," Younis said.

NATO said it was looking into the incident. It said fighting in the area had been fierce for several days and that "the situation is unclear and fluid, with mechanized weapons traveling in all directions."

NATO took command of the air operation from the U.S. last week after American, British and French airstrikes halted Kadafi's troops from advancing on Benghazi, the opposition's de facto capital.

Meanwhile, the GlobalPost news website said four journalists, including two Americans, a Spanish national and a South African, went missing Tuesday, probably abducted by Kadafi's forces as they approached the frontline in Port Brega. One of the missing, American James Foley, freelanced for GlobalPost.

In Tripoli, the capital, Libyan officials said NATO intensified its airstrikes against Libyan military targets late Wednesday and Thursday.

Explosions could be heard in central Tripoli throughout the day, though it was impossible to discern the exact targets. Government spokesman Musa Ibrahim described "a wave of heavy bombardment" near roads east of the city. He said targets included military training facilities.

"The airstrikes were quite heavy today, attacking military academies around Tripoli where students reside and work," he told reporters.

Musa accused NATO of launching daytime attacks in an effort to frighten ordinary people whose spouses are at work and children at school. "They took place at daytime to intensify and maximize the terror element," he told reporters. "People are all awake and you can watch the damage."

NATO officials rejected allegations by Libyan authorities that British warplanes had targeted the country's Sarir oil field, its largest, on Wednesday.

Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, commander of the NATO operation, accused Kadafi's forces of attacking the field to stifle the flow of oil to the rebel-controlled Tobruk terminal. Rebels are counting on oil exports to help finance their nascent transitional government.

A flurry of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have failed to gain traction. A recent trip by Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi to speak to diplomats in Greece, Turkey and Malta failed to sway nations to take up Libya's cause.

The prime minister of Turkey, which has deep economic and historical ties to Libya, weighed in Thursday with his most definitive remarks yet on the conflict. Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Kadafi must withdraw his forces from towns under siege, create safe zones to allow for immediate delivery of humanitarian aid and launch political reforms.

ned.parker@latimes.com

daragahi@latimes.com

Parker reported from Benghazi and Daragahi from Tripoli. Times staff writer Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.

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