New Libya civilian deaths claim draws NATO denial

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SORMAN: Libya said three children were among 15 people killed in a NATO air strike Monday but the Western alliance swiftly denied responsibility, a day after it admitted causing civilian deaths in Tripoli.

Government spokesman accused NATO of a "cowardly terrorist act which cannot be justified" as journalists were shown damaged buildings on the sprawling estate of a veteran comrade of Moammar Qaddafi west of the capital.

But the alliance insisted no aircraft under its command had been operating in the Sorman area, 70 kilometres (45 miles) from Tripoli.

"We strongly deny that this thing in Sorman is us," a NATO official in Brussels said on condition of anonymity. "We have not been operating there."

Journalists were taken on an escorted tour of the estate of Khuwildi Hemidi, who served on the Revolution Command Council which Qaddafi set up when he seized power in 1969.

An AFP correspondent saw several damaged buildings and a decapitated head in the rubble which was still being combed by rescue teams at around midday (1000 GMT).

There were also a number of dead animals among the peacocks, ostriches and gazelles kept in the grounds.

A second Libyan official charged that eight missiles had struck the estate at 4 am (0200 GMT).

He said that most of the dead were members of Hemidi’s family, including two of his grandchildren, and that the rest came from two other families living on the estate.

Hemidi escaped unharmed, the official added.

The new Libyan claim of civilian deaths came just hours after NATO acknowledged that one of its missiles had gone astray in a raid early on Sunday and struck a residential neighborhood of Tripoli.

Reporters were shown the bodies of five of the nine people Libyan officials said were killed in that strike, one of them a woman and two of them toddlers.

That admission was a major boost to the credibility of the Libyan authorities two weeks after officials showed journalists a little girl in hospital they said had been wounded in a NATO air strike, only for a member of the medical staff to announce she had been injured in a traffic accident.

It was also an embarrassment for the alliance which has led the bombing campaign in Libya under a UN mandate to protect civilians.

An alliance statement released in Brussels said "NATO acknowledges civilian casualties in Tripoli strike" during action targeting a missile site.

"It appears that one weapon did not strike the intended target and that there may have been a weapons system failure which may have caused a number of civilian casualties," the statement added.

The Libyan government spokesman accused the Western alliance of "deliberately targeting civilians," insisting there were no military targets anywhere near the Al-Arada district of Tripoli that was hit.

But rebels fighting the four-decade rule of Qaddafi blamed the veteran strongman for the deaths charging that his forces were deliberately using schools and mosques to stash arms.

"We are sorry for the loss of civilian life," said rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, adding: "We hold the Qaddafi regime responsible for having placed military armaments and rocket launchers near civilian areas."

The rebels also warned that they were running out of money as their struggle enters a fifth month and called on governments in the NATO-led coalition to make good their promises of funds.

They have not yet received any of the roughly one billion dollars promised by international donors earlier this month, and urged benefactors to make good on their promises to provide funds, Ghoga said.

"(The) funds should have been deposited from last week and none have been deposited to date," he said speaking late on Sunday.

Calls are increasing for a negotiated solution to the conflict, as the fighting on the ground has degenerated into a bloody stalemate.

After talks in Cairo on Saturday, the African Union, the Arab League, the European Union and the United Nations highlighted the importance of "accelerating the launch of a political process" to end the conflict.

Ghoga said a negotiated solution had not been ruled out, but that Qaddafi and his family could not be a part of it.


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