In Nato’s nearly two-month war in Libya, civilian casualties have been conspicuous by their almost complete absence. But in the early hours of this morning, did that change?
Around two hours ago, Gaddafi government spokespeople held a press conference here in Tripoli to give details of what, if true, would be the worst civilian killing since the bombing began.
According to the Libyans, eleven imams – part of a larger delegation on a peace mission across the front line – died today when Nato bombed their guesthouse in the town of Brega, around 500 miles to the east of the capital. Gruesome pictures of some of the dead were shown.
Nato admits bombing a target in Brega, but says it was a “command and control centre.” If it has indeed made a mistake, this is a big story.
I say “if” because after being repeatedly lied to by the Libyans we are naturally sceptical of their claims. Only yesterday, we were told that the bunker in Gaddafi’s leadership compound hit by Nato was a “sewage facility” – something that even the more sophisticated officials here admit is untrue. We’ve also been solemnly assured – and were told again today – that the regime has not been bombarding the rebel-held city of Misurata.
Yet – though there is of course no equivalence between the two – Nato has also lied in the past when it has made embarrassing mistakes, as in the Kosovo war when it took it several days to own up to civilian bombings.
This incident feels potentially quite real, but we need more information. We’re promised that some of the survivors will be in Tripoli later tonight or tomorrow; it might be possible to untangle it then. Perhaps a visit could be arranged; so far, only Libyan TV has been, which does not inspire confidence.
If it is true, the Libyans would be entitled to be angry; but at the press conference today, they overplayed their hand by saying it was a worse crime than that of the Nazis, and by wheeling out an imam who promised to kill a thousand people from Britain, France and the US for every one killed in Brega. We’ll be watching to see how the story is resolved.