NATO Airstrike Kills Libyan Rebels
A NATO airstrike killed 13 rebel fighters, who were mistaken for Gaddafi's forces. Apparently, they were shooting at NATO planes.
This was, quite apparently, an accident:
BENGHAZI, Libya — A NATO airstrike intended for the forces of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi killed 13 rebel fighters in the battle outside the pivotal oil port of Brega, the rebels said Saturday.
The deaths underscored the challenge that the Western allies and the rebels face in relying on airstrikes to push back the Qaddafi forces as the two sides mix in the battle zone along the front.
Perhaps in response to the Western airstrikes, the Qaddafi forces are increasingly plunging into combat in equipment similar to what the rebels are using, mainly pickup trucks mounted with artillery guns. The move makes it increasingly difficult for even the combatants to distinguish one group from the other at first sight.
“It’s a mistake,” said Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, the rebel’s main spokesman. “Nothing has changed.”
One rebel fighter who was wounded in the airstrike said a fellow rebel had fired artillery into the air moments before the attack.
“I don’t know why,” the rebel, Ali Abdullah Abubaker, said later from a hospital in Benghazi. “Maybe he was scared.”
Seconds later, Mr. Abubaker heard the planes. “I saw something white,” he said. “There was no sound.”
His white pickup truck was set on fire, and he said three of the four other men in the car were killed. Mr. Abubaker, a college student studying political science, had burns on his face and was struck by bullets in his car that ignited in the blast.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels said the alliance was aware of the report and was investigating.
“NATO takes reports of civilian casualties very seriously,” the spokesman said. “But for us, exact details are hard to verify because we do not have reliable sources on the ground.”
If nothing else, this would seem to be a good example of how useless airplanes actually at this point in the conflict.
Libyan rebels have blamed themselves for the deaths of their comrades who were killed in a coalition air strike near Brega. They said one of the opposition fighters fired into the air and the pilot “must have thought” the group was part of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.
Faraj Imbrahim, a young guerilla standing by the graves, said: “It was a mistake. There was a convoy of ours heading to Brega during the Nato air strikes and one of our men fired his anti-aircraft gun into the air. The pilot must have thought we were Gaddafi’s forces.”
That’s extraordinarily plausible. Friendly fire incidents are common early in conflicts, especially coalition operations, when forces haven’t trained together and established SOPs. During Desert Storm–which had a much longer coalition, but also a much longer run-up–we had numerous instances of vehicles being fired upon by friendly aircraft. We very quickly adopted solutions that helped minimize the problem. First, we painted giant V’s on the top of all the vehicles in the coalition. (You’d think Saddam’s folks could have copied this crude device but, insofar as I’m aware, they never did.) Second, we scrapped a lot of the complicated communications procedures–notably constantly changing callsigns and frequencies–and got everyone on the same channel.
Presumably, we’ll quickly figure out some procedures in Libya. Not least of which, I’d imagine, will be instructing people not to fire their weapons in the air like a bunch of amateur yahoos.
And, yes, I’m operating under the presumption that the NATO operation is de facto in coalition with the rebels. Stated neutrality notwithstanding, we’re in alliance against Gaddafi.