NATO Air Strike Kills 12 Rebels In “Friendly Fire” Incident; Fighting Intensifies Throughout Libya
A NATO air strike on Misurata killed 12 rebel fighters and injured 3 others on Wednesday night in its second friendly fire incident this month.
This latest strike happened near the port, which has under brutal attack in recent weeks by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar el-Gaddafi because it serves as a vital lifeline for humanitarian aid to the city, as well as a means of exodus. CNN reported Wednesday’s government attacks on the port were its heaviest yet.
Speaking from his hospital bed, rebel fighter Ahmed Swesi, 20, said his 15-strong unit was gathered next to a small building near a salt factory. The area is about 10 miles from the city centre. The men, who had been transferred from their position in the city centre to guard the port, had three improvised battle wagons with them, each equipped with a heavy weapon.
“We had a message from Nato to paint a special mark on top of our vehicles so we could be identified, which we had done,” he said. “We had also obeyed an order from our military council not to go beyond a certain point. So we thought we were safe from bombs.”
The fighters had just finished having tea with an ambulance crew when they suddenly heard a strange whizzing noise in the sky that did not sound like Gaddafi’s missiles.
“I immediately lay down on the ground. But most of the others were still looking up when the bomb struck,” said Swesi.
NATO fired on a rebel convoy in the eastern part of the country several weeks ago, killing 13, but much as today, that incident did not diminish the rebels support of the international effort to quell Gaddafi’s forces.
As the Guardian reported Thursday:
The majority of residents in Misrata strongly support the Nato mission, which has destroyed a chunk of Gaddafi’s heavy artillery that pounded the city for weeks. But they now fear the incident could reduce Nato’s willingness to act again.
Rebels guarding checkpoints near where the incident occurred refused to let journalists visit the site. Swesi said his group had been very happy when Nato attacked several of Gaddafi’s vehicles and weapons on Tuesday, effectively ending the assault on the port: “I forgive them for what they did because they are trying to help our people. We want Nato to help us more.”
As CNN noted:
From the time NATO began its operation on March 31 until Tuesday, the organization had conducted 3,981 sorties, of which 1,658 were strike sorties, according to an update issued Wednesday.
Meanwhile, government shelling of the port city resumed Thursday, targeting residential areas, and according to CNN, 10 people were killed.
The New York Times reported the rebels withstood a ground assault by Gaddafi’s forces in a village several miles to the west of Misurata as well, celebrating their victory in the evening by riding through the town and firing rifles in the air.
Fighting raged too on the western border with Tunisia as the rebels there successfully fought to maintain control of the strategic Dehiba-Wazin border crossing that they had seized in a surprise move last week.
The skirmishes poured over into Tunisia at one point.
Earlier Thursday, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry had expressed “deep concern” over the military escalation near the crossing its border with Libyan and demanded that the Libyan government “put an end to these violations,” according to the state-run Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP).
But as much as the rebels held ground in Misurata and the Tunisian border, rebels leaders in Benghazi said Thursday they had lost the town of Kufrah in southeastern Libya, several hundred miles from the Chad border, after it was overrun by government forces “who advanced in dozens of cars” that morning, teh New York Times reported.
From the Times:
The rebels played down the loss, saying the town had switched hands several times since the uprising.
“It was quite a sizable force,” said Jalal al-Gallal, a rebel spokesman. “They’ve managed to hoist the green flag. We have sent reinforcements to claim it back,” Mr. Gallal said, adding, “It’s not the best of news.”
As fighting rages all over the country, NATO is stepping up a six-week-old air campaign over Libya. And, as BusinessWeek reported, the alliance is choosing targets closer Gaddafi “in a bid to break a military stalemate between the opposition and loyalist forces.”
The military alliance has boosted its firepower in the last week with with addition of Italian ground-attack warplanes and armed U.S. Predator drones. U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox said April 27 that this week’s strike that flattened part of Qaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli was meant to “increase the psychological pressure” on the Libyan dictator.
Whether that will work, and the stalemate broken any time soon remains to be seen.
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Map of Libya uprising by Rafy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons