Nato head in climbdown over 'friendly fire' air strike
THE secretary general of NATO was forced into an embarrassing climbdown yesterday after alliance commanders refused to apologise for an attack on a tank column that killed up to 13 Libyan rebels.
The deputy commander of NATO's Libya operations said that alliance forces wrongly attacked the armoured column because they believed that the only tanks in use in Libya were part of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
Rear-Admiral Russell Harding said Libya's opposition Transitional National Council (TNC) had given the alliance no notification that its forces were now using tanks.
"I am not apologising for this," he said. "The situation on the ground was extremely fluid and remains extremely fluid."
But William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, said that alliance commanders should say sorry for the incident.
"I think we should say that it is deeply regrettable and I think when something like this happens it doesn't cost anything to apologise," he said. "So I think we should apologise where there is error. If people are killed who are not attacking civilians then it is a mistake."
Anders Fogh Rassmussen, NATO's secretary general, later said he "strongly regretted" the "very unfortunate" incident.
"We have seen in the past that tanks have been used by the Gaddafi regime to attack civilians," he said.
General Abdelfatah Yunis of the TNC called for a "rational and convincing explanation" from NATO for the strike, which took place on the road between Brega and Ajdabiya.
General Yunis said he assumed that Thursday's strike -- the third such incident in recent days involving international forces -- was "NATO by mistake, friendly fire". Fearful that taking sides in a Libyan civil war would go beyond the mandate of protecting civilian lives, NATO commanders have not established direct links with rebel fighters.
Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a TNC spokesman, said NATO should share information with the rebels: "It appears that there has been a breakdown of communication, perhaps due to the visibility on the ground." (©Daily Telegraph, London)