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Infant killed in stray rocket strike in western Libya

Western airstrikes on an arms depot may have sent a rocket into a nearby town in a staunchly anti-Kadafi area, where it killed an 18-month-old boy.

March 31, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • Damage to a house allegedly hit by a rocket in Gharyan, 60 miles southwest of Tripoli. Libyan officials said NATO airstrikes hit an ammo dump near the city.
Damage to a house allegedly hit by a rocket in Gharyan, 60 miles southwest… (Mohamed Messara, EPA )

Reporting from Gharyan, Libya — There was no green bunting signifying strident support for Moammar Kadafi. Absent were the men shooting their Kalashnikovs into the air in honor of the martyr. Or young men driven in on pick-up trucks to hold up portraits of Kadafi in front of television cameras.

There was instead a small group of women, some huddled in a ground floor sitting area, consoling each other as a cool gray drizzle fell on this mountaintop village. And there was a single, small plot of dirt in the local cemetery housing the remains of Sirajeddine Suessi, an 18-month-old infant killed early Tuesday morning by a stray Libyan rocket. Though it's not clear why the weapon exploded in the youngster's house, residents here speculate — and government officials claim — that it was set off by a Western-led airstrike on a government weapons depot several miles away.

For several days, Libyan authoritative have sought to show the world civilian casualties caused by the international military effort intended to curb Kadafi's assault on citizens. Government spokespersons have claimed dozens of civilians have died in the Western-led offensive, though independent observers have been unable to confirm such figures. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates on Sunday accused Libyan security forces of presenting the corpses of civilians killed by Kadafi's militias as caused by the coalition.

Photos: Rebels pushed back to Benghazi, Libya

Most of the Libyan efforts to convince the world have failed. Some bodies displayed by authorities have been tagged with death dates that preceded the launch of Operation Odyssey Dawn.

Journalists have also been escorted to rallies at cemeteries without bodies and the homes of Kadafi supporters who gave wildly conflicting accounts of who died and how.

Now, it seems the most poignant civilian death spotlighted so far is one that took place on the eastern edge of one of the most anti-Kadafi regions in the country, the restive Western Mountains, where rebels control two cities, Zintan and Nalut, and half a dozen villages.

Unlike Kadafi strongholds such as his birthplace of Surt, there was not a single portrait of Kadafi in Gharyan on Wednesday. Telltale signs of whitewashed graffiti on the walls of crumbling Soviet-style apartment blocks suggested that antigovernment unrest had reached this mountain enclave several weeks ago.

International airstrikes hit at least one nearby base over the last several days, probably in an attempt to curtail Kadafi's ability to attack rebel-controlled areas to the west. One target, an opposition spokesman said, was a large mountainside ammunitions depot near Gharyan. Residents speculate that one of the rockets stored at the facility may have been set off, traveling across the mountain valleys and punching a whole through the residence of Najib Suessi, an employee at the local university.

The projectile, they said, ricocheted around the living room, eventually striking Suessi' sons, young Sirajeddine. He was not killed instantly, according to relatives, but taken to a hospital, where he died. A cellphone photograph showed the boy with a wound to the left side of his head. The impact alone could have killed him.

"It was so loud," said Nasser Suessi, a relative who lived next door. "As soon as I heard the sound I knew he would be dead. He was just too small."

Photos: Rebels pushed back to Benghazi, Libya

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