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Libya officials put a spin on conflict

Moammar Kadafi's government alleges a mounting civilian toll and massive damage amid a punishing NATO-led bombing campaign. Foreign journalists learn that what officials say happened may not necessarily be the case.

June 06, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim gives journalists a tour outside the wrecked premises of the parliament in Tripoli.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim gives journalists a tour outside… (Mahmud Turkia / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Amid intensified NATO-led bombing of Libya's capital, the government is alleging mounting civilian casualties and massive damage to homes and civilian infrastructure, though foreign journalists see limited evidence of such devastation.

Libyan authorities in recent days have alleged that separate bombing strikes in Tripoli injured an infant girl, heavily damaged a Christian Coptic church and resulted in part of a bomb or missile landing in a semirural neighborhood. International reporters were bused to each scene, but what they learned did not always match the information provided by officials.

The injured girl was the victim of a traffic accident, according to a note from a medic, the church suffered mostly broken windows and other minor damage, and the bomb or missile appeared to come from Russia, which is not part of the NATO alliance.

With Libya isolated diplomatically, economically and militarily, the government of leader Moammar Kadafi has for months granted short-term visas for foreign journalists to come to Tripoli and cover the war — in circumscribed fashion, typically in the company of government "minders." The government hopes to counter allegations that the regime is engaged in wholesale repression and to document the effect of the airstrikes on civilian life.

"It's not our policy to fabricate news," Khaled Kaim, deputy foreign minister, told reporters Monday as he stood in the heart of Tripoli in front of the rubble of a colonial-era building blasted to bits a few hours earlier. "We want to be as credible as possible."

The issue of civilian casualties is perhaps the most delicate aspect of a punishing NATO-led campaign that has sent almost 10,000 sorties over Libya since March as part of a United Nations mandate to protect civilians.

In the last week, massive explosions have rocked the capital almost every day. On Sunday, NATO said it hit various targets, including command and control centers, military support facilities and antiaircraft weapons sites. The pattern continued late Monday, when several thunderous blasts echoed throughout the city.

The Libyan government accuses the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of hypocrisy, saying the alliance is also targeting civilian structures. Libyan officials say more than 700 civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 injured nationwide in almost three months of Western-led bombing. The numbers are impossible for foreign journalists to verify.

Libyan authorities have not produced evidence that the bombing has caused large-scale killings of civilians. Most such deaths and injuries have occurred outside the capital, the government says.

NATO said it struck a "regime intelligence headquarters building" early Monday in Tripoli. Whether that was the same totaled structure where Kaim stood along the Mediterranean seafront remained unclear. The historic building had been the headquarters of Italian intelligence during colonial occupation in the 1920s, Kaim said, but now served as parliamentary offices and a women's center.

Journalists on Sunday were taken to a hospital to see the injured girl, who had a bandaged right foot and intravenous tubes attached to her body. A handwritten note surreptitiously passed to a reporter by a medic at the scene indicated that the girl was a victim of a traffic accident.

Journalists were also taken to a semirural area where government officials said a NATO bomb or missile had landed on the ground close to several residences. The unexploded vessel resembled a fuel tank for a rocket. It had come down near a clutch of palm and olive trees, officials said.

"We in Libya don't have this kind of technology," said Abdel Bakr, part of a crowd who gathered to gaze at the battered object, occasionally breaking into pro-Kadafi chants. "This is NATO."

But close inspection of a piece of the object that had been separated from the main vessel revealed Cyrillic script. Russia has supplied weapons to Libya.

The discovery of the likely Russian origin of the cylinder led officials on the scene to offer a new explanation: A NATO bomb or missile had struck a nearby Libyan military camp, causing the projectile to become airborne and crash on the farm.

Among those offering the revised version of events was a man at the hospital who was variously identified as a neighbor or relative of the injured girl. He also showed up at the site of the apparent downed rocket booster. He gave his name as Emad Ghaith and said he was a Libyan reporter working for the press ministry.

When journalists went to another location on the outskirts of the city, they saw little damage at St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church and learned no one was injured, said the pastor, Father Timothaus Bishara Adly, who wore a skullcap and embroidered leather cross. The Kadafi regime gave the church to his congregation, mostly Egyptian immigrants, as a "present" back in 1972, the pastor said.

"We feel that praying will move the globe," said Adly, who declined to respond when asked what he thought NATO was targeting.

But an adjacent property housed what appeared to be a military or government installation. At the site, huge hangars, like those built to house airplanes or large vehicles, had been smashed to bits, sheets of metal twisted and broken as though stomped on by a giant. Government minders aggressively prevented the media from recording the scene.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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