NATO Strike In Libya May Have Killed Civilians

NATO says one of its airstrikes in the Libyan capital of Tripoli went astray and may have killed civilians. The military alliance said the errant strike early Sunday may have been due to "a weapons system failure." Libyan officials say nine civilians were killed, including two children.

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NATO acknowledged last night that one of its airstrikes may have killed civilians in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The attack, which Libyan officials say killed nine people, prompted Moammar Gadhafi's government to call for a global jihad against the West. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Tripoli and brings us this story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: For months, Gadhafi's government has tried to convince the world that NATO's air campaign to protect Libyan civilians is actually killing civilians. So Libyan officials used the results of Sunday's errant weapon, as NATO called it, to bolster their case.

Government minders, who severely limit the movements of foreign journalists here, took them twice to the northern Tripoli neighborhood where a multi-story home lay in a pile of rubble. They also showed reporters four bodies, including that of two children, who the Libyans say were killed in the NATO airstrike. Libyan Foreign Minister Abdulati Alobidi offered this blistering assessment.

Mr. ABDULATI ALOBIDI (Foreign minister, Libya): The barbarian murderous organization of NATO, supported and funded by criminal governments and criminal politicians, carried out an unjustified air-strike against the civilian neighborhood of Souk al Juma.

NELSON: He then called for a global jihad against the, quote, "oppressive criminal West and vowed Libyans would never forgive or forget. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim quickly sought to clarify that statement.

Mr. MOUSSA IBRAHIM (Minister of Information, Libyan government): We will never carry out any terrorist attacks against European or Western cities or civilians. We will not target any capitals of the West. Our war is against the armies of the West.

NELSON: But he and the foreign minister say the NATO strikes only strengthen Libyan resolve to keep Gadhafi in power.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Even those with doubts in their hearts now amongst Libyans will have a clear view of the enemy and they know this is the same old story. The West attacking a Muslim country for oil, dominance and occupation. We have seen it in many other places. It's taking place now in Libya under the false justification of the protection of civilians.

NELSON: But claims of mass support are likely overstated. Even Gadhafi's ardent supporters acknowledge that the NATO campaign and international embargo are taking their toll. The neighborhood where the home was destroyed in the air strike is said to be mostly against the Libyan leader.

Journalists there saw graffiti that had been recently painted over, unlike the spray-painted walls near their hotel that are laden with pro-Gadhafi slogans. Yet NATO's errant strike could prove a major blow for the alliance here, just as civilian casualties have for American and allied troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While NATO's stated goal for the Libyan mission is to safeguard the lives of civilians in the growing conflict, critics charge the main objective is to oust Gadhafi from power.

Mr. HUGH ROBERTS (Project Director, International Crisis Group): One would hope that it would encourage policy makers in London, and Washington and Paris, and particularly in Washington, to reconsider the military campaign given that it is actually causing civilian casualties.

NELSON: That's Hugh Roberts, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. Reached in Cairo, he says a political solution is the only way to keep Libya from a protracted civil war.

But as the campaign drags on beyond the time its proponents had planned, it does appear to be buying time for the rebels to garner more international support. On Monday, China announced the Libyan opposition leader will be visiting this week.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Tripoli.

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