Nato 'regrets' bombing Libyan rebels' tanks
Loyalist forces shelled the edge of the Libyan town of Ajdabiya on Friday forcing insurgents there to retreat, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) expressed regret at the deaths caused by an alliance air strike on rebel tanks.
Reacting to the shelling, panicked rebels retreated to the city centre, 7km away.
The assault comes a day after many insurgents and civilians stampeded out of the eastern city on rumours that Muammar Gaddafi’s troops were at the gates.
On Friday morning, rebels had regrouped at Ajdabiya, 860km east of Tripoli, before advancing westwards to the front line near the oil town of Brega.
On Thursday, families packed into cars and trucks had joined rebel military vehicles in a charge northeast towards the insurgent stronghold Benghazi with rebels saying Grad missiles had hit the edge of the town.
The flight from Ajdabiya on Thursday came after two air strikes by Nato warplanes destroyed three rebel tanks and killed four people near Brega. Six people were missing.
Nato chief Anders Fogh Rassmussen Friday described the bombing as an “unfortunate incident”.
“I strongly regret the loss of life,” Rasmussen said, one day after a strike.
The secretary-general made the statement on Nato’s television channel a few hours after the alliance’s operation’s deputy commander, British Rear Admiral Russell Harding, refused to apologise for the air strike.
Harding said the alliance was unaware that rebels were using tanks in their campaign against Gaddafi’s forces, and said it was becoming hard to distinguish between the two sides on the road between Brega and Ajdabiya.
“The situation on the ground is very fluid,” Rasmussen said. “We have seen in the past that tanks have been used by the Gaddafi regime to attack civilians.”
Explain yourself, Nato
But the rebels said they were “not seeking an apology but an explanation” from Nato.
“We are not questioning the intention of the Nato,” rebel spokesperson Shamsiddin Abdulmolah told AFP.
“It appears that there has been a breakdown of communication, perhaps due to the visibility on the ground ... and that the positions of our tanks have not make clear to Nato,” he said.
General Abdelfatah Yunis, the insurgents’ commander, said on Thursday the rebels had informed Nato that they were moving T55 and T72 heavy tanks from their eastern stronghold Benghazi to Brega.
It is the second time in less than a week that Nato warplanes accidentally struck rebel positions near Brega.
The alliance has concluded that last week’s bombing was an “unfortunate accident” and the rebels themselves admitted its fighters had made a “mistake” by firing tracers in the air, prompting warplanes to act in self-defence.
Libyan rebels in the besieged city of Misrata, meanwhile, Friday criticised Nato for what they said was its lack of response to Gaddafi’s forces who have relentlessly pounded the city for more than a month.
“We doubt the intentions of Nato. We have informed (Nato) of the positions of Gaddafi’s forces in the city which are far from any civilians,” a spokesman for the rebels told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“We have officially informed Nato and have assumed responsibility for any presence of civilians, but they have not acted so far,” the spokesman said without specifying how the information was passed on to the alliance.
The United Nations announced that a World Food Programme (WFP) ship carrying food, medicines and doctors, arrived late on Thursday at Misrata with 600 tons of foodstuffs—“enough to feed more than 40 000 people for a month.”
The WFP also sent two doctors to the city, as well as enough medical supplies from the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF and the World Health Organisation to cover the urgent needs of 50 000 people for a month.
Misrata, about 215km east of Tripoli, has seen fighting for more than 40 days since the start of the uprising against Gaddafi. Doctors said last week that 200 people had been killed there since the fighting began.
With little headway being made by the rebels on the battlefield despite the support off Nato airpower, General Carter Ham, head of United States Africa Command, said in Washington it was unlikely they could launch an assault on Tripoli and oust Gaddafi.
Asked at a Senate hearing about the chances that the opposition could “fight their way” to Tripoli and replace Gaddafi, Ham replied: “Sir, I would assess that as a low likelihood.”
His comments underscored growing concern in Washington and European capitals that the conflict is heading toward a stalemate, with Gaddafi firmly in control in Tripoli and badly organised rebels unable to turn the tide.
But Harding denied there is a stalemate and said on Friday rival forces had been “moving up and down” a highway between Brega and Ajdabiya in the past 48 hours.
“If someone wants to define that as a stalemate that’s fine, all I’m saying is that yes, it’s fluid, but it’s fluid in a relatively small area,” he said during the video conference.
Human rights probe
Meanwhile, a UN human rights team set up to investigate violations in Libya will leave from Geneva on Sunday to undertake a field mission, the head of the team, Cherif Bassiouni said Friday.
“Our travel schedule for reasons which you’ll appreciate is not going to be made public,” said Bassiouni, who heads the team of three.
The 47-member UN Human Rights Council had unanimously decided to set up the investigation into suspected crimes against humanity after Gaddafi’s regime dispatched Libya’s army and air force to fire on civilians.—AFP