Mission to protect Libyan civilians questioned after family killed

NATO's mission to protect civilian lives in Libya has been called into question after it admitted carrying out an air strike in a coastal town in which a mother and two children were killed.

The strike on a two-storey home in the suburbs of the town of Zlitan, 255 kilometres east of Tripoli, killed the wife and two children of Mustafa Naji, a physics teacher, and provoked local anger against the bombing campaign.

The regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi seized on the attack to press claims that innocent people had been killed by NATO bombs.

NATO's efforts to assist advances by rebels from central Misrata have embroiled the alliance in an urban war for control of Zlitan. Bombed schools and flattened food warehouses are now in evidence in the town and they are being used by Gadhafi loyalists as staging grounds for continued attacks on the rebel enclave.

Despite the use of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter gunships, and despite rebel claims that the town had fallen earlier this week, fighting raged yesterday on Zlitan's eastern fringes. A handful of loud explosions were accompanied by the whine of jet engines on NATO aircraft.

The Naji home stood 16 km from the front line in the apparently quiet suburb of Kaim. Regime officials said the family were ordinary people who had feasted just hours before to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Its concrete floors had collapsed and the rooms were destroyed. By mid-morning it was impossible to tell if the building had ever been used by Gadhafi's forces, unlike the nearby law college and school where the bombed buildings were littered with military paraphernalia including combat fatigues and log books. Ibtisam Naji and her children, Mohammad, 5, and Muttasim, 3, were buried within hours at an emotional funeral next to a local mosque.

"These people were not fighters, there is no military in this neighbourhood," said Ali Adil, a lawyer and neighbour. "NATO say they are protecting civilians but they are turning their weapons on us."

A nephew pulled off the funerary shrouds to reveal the bloodied faces of the dead. "Those that are fighting with NATO are traitors against their country," said Mohammad Ali Berber, a cousin of the victim.

Adil said that he had seen helicopters in action where there were no soldiers deployed.

A NATO spokesman said the organization had struck a target in Zlitan and that it was investigating the allegations of civilian casualties.

[Source: By Daniel Mcelroy, Daily Telegraph in The Gazette, Montreal, 05Aug11]

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