NATO refused to apologise today for a deadly airstrike on Libyan rebel tanks, saying that the military alliance was unaware that the opposition was using such vehicles.
“I’m not apologising,” Rear Admiral Russell Harding, deputy commander of NATO’s Libya operations, told a news briefing.
“The situation on the ground, as I said, was extremely fluid and remains extremely fluid. Up until yesterday we had no information that the TNC or opposition forces were using tanks,” he said, referring to the rebel transitional national council.
“Our role is to protect civilians. Tanks have been used in the past to directly target civilians,” Harding said. It is the second time in less than a week that NATO warplanes accidentally strike rebel positions near Brega.
The alliance has concluded that last week’s bombing was an “unfortunate accident” and the rebels themselves admitted its fighters had made a “mistake” by firing tracers in the air, prompting warplanes to act in self-defence. On the ground, Libyan rebels are regrouping after fleeing an assault by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
The key transport hub of Ajdabiya, 860km east of Tripoli was today in the hands of the rebels, who returned to their posts after fleeing in vast numbers yesterday. The town was largely deserted of civilians however, with only a few scattered fighters to be seen.
Fighters manning a checkpoint at the western gate of Ajdabiya said yesterday’s panicked flight had been caused by an air strike on a rebel armoured column which killed four and injured 14, as well as the fact that Gaddafi’s forces had landed Grad rockets near the town.
With rumours flying that Gaddafi’s forces were at the gates of Ajdabiya, thousands of civilians and some insurgents stampeded out of the town towards the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, some 160km away. Rebels today indicated the front remained somewhere between Ajdabiya and the oil town of Brega, which is under the control of the loyalists, but could not say where.
A rebel armoured column was hit yesterday by an air strike near Brega, 80km west of Ajdabiya, which the rebels blamed on NATO forces enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. General Abdelfatah Yunis, the rebel commander, said in Benghazi that four people – two fighters and two medics – were killed in the Brega attack, 14 wounded and another six people were missing.
He said it was friendly fire, “carried out in error by NATO,” adding that the rebels had informed NATO that they were moving T55 and T72 heavy tanks from Benghazi to Brega.
“We suffered a setback today,” he added, but said the rebels have 400 tanks and will get more.