Rebels blame Libya air strike on mistake by NATO

By Michael Georgy

AJDABIYAH, Libya (Reuters) – A NATO air strike hit a Libyan rebel position near the contested oil town of Brega on Thursday killing up to five people, rebel fighters and a hospital nurse said.

A rebel commander said it appeared to be case of “friendly fire” and said it did not cause tension with NATO although the rebels wanted an explanation.

“We are not questioning the intention of NATO, because they should be here to help us and the civilians, but we would like to receive some answers regarding what happened today,” Abdel Fattah Younes, head of the rebel forces, said in Benghazi.

NATO said it was looking into details of the air strike on a tank column near Brega.

It was the second time in less than a week that rebels said NATO had bombed their comrades by mistake. Thirteen were killed in an air strike not far from the same spot on Saturday.

A doctor from a rebel ambulance which had been at the front said rebels were also hit shortly after the air strike by a rocket attack from forces supporting Muammar Gaddafi.

One medical worker was killed and a doctor was severely wounded, he told Reuters.

A Reuters reporter saw bloodstained stretchers being brought out of the hospital in Ajdabiyah, where those wounded in the air and rocket attacks were being treated. Medical staff could be seen fighting to save the life of the wounded doctor.

“It was a NATO air strike on us. We were near our vehicles near Brega,” wounded fighter Younes Jumaa said from a stretcher at the hospital.

Nurse Mohamed Ali said at least five people died in Thursday’s attack.

Younes, speaking at a news conference, said the toll so far was four dead, fourteen injured and six missing.

Medical workers carried uniforms soaked in blood from one of hospital rooms. Some rebel fighters were seen on their knees weeping in the corridor.

“MISTAKES HAPPEN”

“We were standing by our tanks and NATO fired two rockets at us,” said one, Salem Mislat. “NATO are liars. They are siding with Gaddafi.”

Younes dismissed such talk.

“There is no tension between us and NATO. This is a war, and during war mistakes do happen, and those that are responsible for the mistakes should admit their mistakes and try to make up for them,” he said.

He said rebels had transported 20 tanks to the front line at Brega for the first time, but at about 10:30 a.m. (4:30 a.m. EST) the advance was hit. “We were taken by surprise by a vicious attack by airplanes on our tanks.”

“We had informed them about the time those tanks were leaving Benghazi,” he said. “And we had also informed them that in the early morning they would be advancing toward Brega.”

Dr Othman al-Faidory said ambulances near the rebel position came under government rocket attack shortly after the air strike.

“I heard airplanes overhead then suddenly there were strikes on the area and then there were rocket attacks from the direction of Gaddafi forces,” he said.

Later, a Reuters reporter heard blasts from the west of Ajdabiyah, gateway to the insurgent stronghold of Benghazi, and a rebel fighter said Gaddafi’s forces were hitting the western boundary with rockets.

Rebel fighters could be seen pulling back from the western entrance to the town, where they have a checkpoint.

Libyan state television reported that “members of the army have entered Ajdabiyah” in a brief headline, although residents contacted after that news item said here was no sign of forces loyal to Gaddafi in the eastern town.

Television showed footage of armed troops in a desert area and said Gaddafi’s forces had arrested some rebels and seized tanks.

(Writing by Barry Moody and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Rebels blame Libya air strike on mistake by NATO