Amnesty International is calling on NATO to conduct an investigation into claims by Libyan officials loyal to leader Muammar al-Qaddafi that an airstrike earlier this week killed as many as 85 civilians in a remote farming community.
The alliance operation Monday night, which utilized precision guided munitions, destroyed several isolated buildings in a rural area about 6 miles south of the frontline city of Zlitan near the town of Majar.
"NATO continues to stress its commitment to protect civilians. To that effect, it should thoroughly investigate this and all other recent incidents in which civilians were reportedly killed in western Libya as a result of airstrikes,” said Amnesty’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
NATO denies causing mass casualties among Majar’s civilian population, saying its jets hit a military staging area.
“The allegation of civilian casualties made by the Qaddafi regime was not corroborated by available factual information at the site,” said NATO press officer Tony White. “The strikes which took place on Monday were conducted following clear intelligence that former farm buildings were being used as a staging point for pro-Qaddafi forces to conduct attacks against the people of Libya and the likelihood of civilians in the nearby vicinity was low. As such, the facilities were a legitimate military target.”
But a Libyan official described the incident as a “massacre” and took foreign journalists on a tour of the bombed sites Tuesday. The trip included stops at Zlitan Hospital and a mass funeral for some of those killed.
Fox News journalists, who were on that trip, saw the bodies of two small children and at least three women in the hospital’s morgue and later counted around 30 coffins being put into a mass grave in Majar, not far from where the bombs fell.
Moussa Ibrahim, who is the spokesman for the Libyan government in Tripoli, said the sole purpose of the airstrike was to clear a path for rebel forces to enter Zlitan from the south and use it as a base to attack the capital.
“The people of this tribe were attacked simply because they stood resilient against the rebels,” he said.
Libyan state television is airing footage it says was taken the night of the bombing in which the bodies of children and women are being pulled from the rubble.
During a visit to Majar on Wednesday the Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmudi, who took about a dozen representatives from foreign embassies along, likened the bombing to war crimes committed by Adolf Hitler.
The time frame of Monday’s airstrikes could prove to be a vital factor in determining if civilians were caught up in the nighttime raids.
NATO says the bombs were dropped on the farm “between 2333 and 2355 (local time).”
Witnesses, including patients Fox News interviewed in their hospital beds, said people from nearby houses had rushed toward the buildings to assist in a rescue operation after the first wave of strikes.
Briefing reporters on the way to the scene Tuesday, Ibrahim said, “two to three rockets were fired and then when the people came to help, more rockets hit the buildings killing many more people.”
White contends that the site was thoroughly monitored by NATO before the attack.
“With our surveillance capabilities, we monitored this military compound very carefully before striking it. A number of military or mercenary casualties were possible owing to the nature of the activity we monitored,” said White.
Despite NATO’s insistence its target was military in nature, Amnesty wants the incident investigated and is urging the alliance to use extreme caution with future mission.
"NATO must take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, even in those cases where al-Qaddafi forces are using civilian facilities for military purposes," Sahraoui said.
Amnesty International says it’s already written to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen for details relating to other airstrikes reported to have killed Libyan civilians.
NATO began its bombing campaign against Qaddafi’s regime five months ago after the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling on it to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.
The U.N. resolutions followed violent crackdowns on mass demonstrations against the Libyan regime which started in February.
Since March, NATO has conducted nearly 7,000 sorties over Libya.