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.

UPDATE (James Joyner): Sharon Lynch passes along a Sky News report (“Rebels Blame Themselves For Deadly Air Raid“) which tells a different tale:

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.

 

FILED UNDER: Africa, Military Affairs, World Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    If nothing else, this would seem to be a good example of how useless airplanes actually at this point in the conflict.

    No. It would be an example of a very common feature of war: friendly fire. When people are shooting guns and firing missiles and dropping bombs they often don’t go quite where you’d like them to go. Ever see a movie of a sword battle? Ever wonder how they avoided occasionally slashing their friends? Answer: they didn’t.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael: Agreed. See my update to the post.

  3. (You’d think Saddam’s folks could have copied this crude device but, insofar as I’m aware, they never did.)

    Given the flat terrain and the relatively long engagement ranges, it’s quite likely they never got to see a coalition vehicle from above closely enough to notice the V

  4. I do want to draw attention to this part of the original report:

    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.

    The pro-Gaddafi forces are adopting a particularly smart strategy here, it seems to me. if you’ve got to groups of people shooting at each other from similar looking vehicles, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to tell who’s who from the air. Additionally, of course, when the fighting moves into an urban area using air power becomes even more difficult unless you don’t care about the unavoidable civilian casualties.

    I’m not going to claim to be an expert on military tactics here, but the longer stuff like this goes on, it seems to me that the less useful the no-fly/no-drive zone would become.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    There are definite limits to no-fly, no-drive zones. One of the really annoying things about the enemy (any enemy) is that they tend to adapt.

    But step back and look at this on the map. Gaddafi still hasn’t taken Misurata, which is in the west. Despite using artillery quite ruthlessly, and despite the lack of training among the rebels there. Street fighting is very tough for both sides. (Historical note: the Russians advancing on Germany adopted the novel technique of simply blowing holes through adjoining walls in rows of townhomes. So much easier than making your way down a street under sniper fire. Not great for the families in the townhomes.)

    But seen as a war this isn’t much about Misurata, it’s about the hundreds of miles of desert separating east and west. Desert warfare is very much about air power. There’s a big long highway — just one — connecting east and west and running through small towns and oil facilities. So long as the allies deploy air power there’s probably no way for Gaddafi to concentrate enough force in the east to take Benghazi.

    I’ll guess that he’s using civilians to shield his forces moving along the highway, and that complicates matters severely. But it’s still a tough thing to try and move hundreds or thousands of guys and their vehicles that far, out in the open, and keep sending them supplies, when you don’t own the air.

    That’s why it’s early to panic. The battle is not about Misurata — although that’s tragic — it’s about whether Gaddafi can take the east and end the rebellion. If he can’t, then he has a regime limited to half of Libya, with his funds frozen, his borders closed and his arms supply cut off. So long as the rebels don’t lose their nerve, they probably win in the end.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    By the way, using Google Earth, and picking somewhat random points defining the edge of eastern and western population concentrations, I make it 200-250 miles of open desert. That’s a long drive without cover and the French and Royal Air Forces overhead.

  7. ponce says:

    “That’s a long drive without cover and the French and Royal Air Forces overhead.”

    Especially when Gaddaphi’s (TM) forces have started to mine the roads.

    Can IEDs be far behind?

    Those Toyotas don’t look like they have much armor…

  8. […] to reports the plane attacked after after rebels reportedly fired an anti-aircraft gun. More from OTB. At least 13 people are reported to have been killed when a coalition plane flying over Libya fired […]

  9. PD Shaw says:

    Agree that there is a natural border between the soon-to-be-de facto two countries where the desert extends towards the Sea, and the Sea extends towards the desert. There will be perimeters established and neutral territory between them along the coast.

    Each side will want to enlist bedouin tribes and/or take to the Mountains and strike at the cities from the South. At least that’s what I would do.

  10. A mass grave with 1,000 dead civilians in it has been found in the Ivory Coast:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/ivory-coast/8423651/Ivory-Coast-aid-workers-find-1000-bodies-in-Duekoue.html

    How is Obama gonna to be able to justify not getting involved there now?

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Kristof today:

    But just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?

  12. ponce says:

    “Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?”

    But…this is a post about us killing Libyans.

    You know, the good kind.