ZLITAN, Libya -- – Hundreds of mourners crowded into a Mosque and parched cemetery in the Libyan city of Zlitan Thursday to bury two children and their mother.
They were victims, according to local accounts, of a NATO airstrike earlier in the morning.
In the past the European military alliance has accepted responsibility for civilian deaths in Libya, but NATO has yet to react to Thursday’s raid.
Their crushed home, a half mile up the road, was the first stop for foreign journalists bussed in from the capital Tripoli to bear witness to the aftermath of NATO’s most recent bombing there.
Neighbors said the house, located in a quiet street surrounded by similar dwellings, was pulverized by a rocket at around 6 am and all present were at a loss to explain why. “There is no fighting here and there are no troops," said Ahmed Burki speaking through a Libyan translator who travels with the media.
“We heard a big bang. The whole family was inside, three kids, the father and mother and the children’s grandmother. We don’t know why they bombed. The man is a teacher, they were all civilians there.”
The two children, boys aged 5 and 3 1/2, were buried beside their mother soon after their bodies were recovered from the rubble.
NATO's air and sea campaign is now into its fifth month, but an end to this conflict stills seems a long way off.
It was not the first time the international media has been driven to Zlitan, but it was the first time they were allowed to attend the funeral of civilians killed in the daily bombardments. Up until now those have been reserved exclusively for the state-run media.
Ziltan has become the third front in the fight for control of Libya and is the biggest urban center that stands between the rebel-controlled city of Misratah and Muammar Qaddafi’s powerbase of Tripoli. The rebels have threatened Zlitan’s fringes for some time and earlier this week their fighters penetrated deeper prompting commanders to, prematurely and erroneously announce they had captured the city center.
Thursday’s tour of nearly deserted streets left no doubt that Qaddafi’s forces are still very much in control here.
On the city’s outskirts, where journalists were not taken, the battle raged on, the sounds of rockets and explosions clearly audible. Journalists visited two other bomb sites in the city including a school that had been all but flattened and a shattered law academy.
NATO claims Qaddafi forces use state institutions as staging areas for troops as well as for concealing heavy weapons. At one of the locations opened ammunition cases and shredded uniforms were scattered about.
For the most part though there was little sign that the facilities were ever used for anything else other than their intended purpose. What is evident is the Qaddafi camps’ desire to discredit NATO assertions that it is adhering strictly to the U.N. mandate to protect civilians in this conflict.
“Today was yet another crime by NATO against civilians,” said an emotional Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
“They are killing women and children. This happens every day. Help us to stop this madness.”
Ibrahim said the number of civilians killed in the war to date had already topped 1,000.
“Direct your hard questions to the prime ministers and presidents of these NATO countries. Ask them how can they sleep at night knowing they are killing civilians.”