| 8.5°C Dublin

Libya and Nato exchange claims over civilian airstrike deaths

Libyan officials have claimed that several civilians, including a woman and two children, were killed yesterday in a Nato airstrike on Tripoli, an allegation that will do little to ease concerns over the fractured alliance's protracted military campaign.

Nato did not immediately accept responsibility, saying that it was investigating the incident and would be "very sorry" if it turned out that it had caused civilian deaths.

Eyewitnesses said the attack occurred just after 1am, tearing apart a building in Tripoli's residential Souq al-Juma district, about a mile from a military airfield frequently targeted by Nato. Officials said nine civilians had died, including an entire family.

The claims by Libyan officials were difficult to verify. Journalists were rapidly bussed to the scene, where two bodies were seen being pulled from the rubble, before being taken to a hospital where they were shown five bodies said to have been recovered from the blast, including those of two children.

A government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, accused Nato of "deliberately targeting civilians" and warned that the airstrikes were "planting the seeds of hatred for generations to come".

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime has repeatedly accused the alliance of harming civilians since it was tasked in March with enforcing a no-fly zone to prevent the Libyan despot from attacking his own people. Libya's health ministry claims that 856 civilians have been killed in Nato strikes, a figure widely thought to be exaggerated.

The Libyan government has accused Nato of destroying a hotel just yards from a block of flats, and bombing a bus near Tripoli and a factory making medical supplies. The alliance has countered that Libyan officials have accused it of striking civilian buildings that were actually military command centres.

In one notable incident, officials recently showed foreign journalists a child who they said had been hurt in an airstrike, only for medical staff to claim in a smuggled message that the child had been injured in a car crash.

But if the latest Libyan claims turn out to be true, it will be the first proof of civilian deaths in the Western-backed campaign now entering its fourth month. Even if not verified, the allegations against Nato give Colonel Gaddafi's regime a powerful propaganda tool that can be used to rally domestic opposition to intervention by foreign powers, while dealing a further blow to the 27-member military alliance that is already deeply divided.

Some at the scene of the blast reportedly accused Libyan forces of deliberately mounting the attack on the residential district, known for its opposition to Colonel Gaddafi's rule, in a bid to harm Nato. None of the accusers were able to offer any proof for such claims, however. Meanwhile, the incident is likely to bring renewed scrutiny of the military intervention, which many hoped would quickly rout the regime's forces. Instead, it has been protracted and messy, costing the British Government as much as £100m, much more than initially projected.

The Nato alliance faces dissent from within its own ranks. Russia and China have both refused to take part in the campaign, while France and Britain have criticised it for slow progress. In a bleak assessment, Robert Gates, the United States' outgoing Defence Secretary, said recently that the alliance faced a "dim if not dismal future", given the reluctance of participating nations to devote the required resources.

Meanwhile, Nato expressed its regret for a deadly strike that hit a convoy of rebel fighters on Saturday in the east of the country when they were mistaken for pro-regime forces.

Independent News Service