NATO Denies Libya's Claim That 85 Die in Airstrike

Libyan officials say 85 civilians, including 33 children, were "massacred” during NATO airstrikes Monday night in the frontline city of Zlitan. NATO reportedly contends the number, saying it “has no evidence of civilian casualties.”

Meanwhile, Moussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, says NATO bombed seven isolated farmhouses around 11p.m., wiping out 20 rural families.

He called the airstrike a "massacre," and said the victims included mothers and children. They were killed so the rebels could penetrate the city, he said.

Zlitan has held out against the fighters of the opposition Transitional National Council for the past two months.

The rebels launched an offensive against the city last week, but were halted after making only modest gains. Since then they’ve managed to repel determined counterattacks by Muammar Qaddafi forces, but haven’t been able to move into the city.

Zlitan is strategically important in this stop/start civil war as it straddles the main highway between the rebel-controlled city of Misrata and Qaddafi’s powerbase of Tripoli around 120 miles further to the west.

Journalists were shown two bombed houses Tuesday morning about six miles south east of Zlitan. The wrecked buildings had tell-tale craters in their collapsed roofs, an indication they were struck from the air rather than by ground based weapons.

Local eyewitnesses said one of the houses was hit, trapping occupants in the rubble, and then hit again after neighbors had rushed to the scene to assist with the rescue effort.

According to those at the scene the bodies of two children were still trapped between floors.

NATO confirmed Tuesday that sorties had hit three targets on a farm south of Zlitan targeting staging areas for troops loyal to the Qaddafi regime.

“We do not have evidence of civilian casualties at this stage, although casualties among military personnel – including mercenaries – are very likely due to the nature of the target,” NATO spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie said.

Reporters were taken to the Zlitan Hospital morgue where several dozen bodies in white bags were lined up along the floor.

Most of the dead were adult males, but among them were the bodies of two small children and several women.

Accounts about the number of dead differed wildly at the hospital and at the scene of the bombing. A medical student said he heard around 40 had been killed then later insisted it was 85 and hundreds wounded after being spoken to by colleagues.

Only one woman was being treated at the hospital for injuries related to the overnight bombing. Her left leg had been amputated below the knee.

“We were just sitting with our friends and then there was this sudden bang”, said the woman’s weeping husband Ali Ali Hamid Jafez.

The foreign press was then taken to the nearby village of Majar where the dead were being buried. Thousands of mourners crowded round a tiny graveyard for the service.

Twenty eight coffins were carried from the back of pick-up trucks and laid side by side in a large forecourt while prays were recited amid pro-Qaddafi chants.

Armed men on the outskirts of the large crowd fired their AK-47 machine guns into the air as the dead were put in a mass grave.

Tribal Sheik Mohammad Al-Josh said the cemetery was last used one hundred years ago to bury those who died fighting against the Italian colonial occupation.

“These people have all died in a similar fashion so we bury them here,” said Sheik Al-Josh.

“NATO wants to force the people to help the rebels to come into the city and then wants to occupy Libya. They can’t come here because we will fight against them.”

The Libyan media has announced three days of mourning for those killed.