NATO: We're to blame for Sunday's civilian deaths in Libya

NATO's unprecedented acknowledgment of responsibility for civilian deaths is raising doubts about the alliance's prolonged campaign in Libya, which was supposed to save civilian lives.

Adam Schreck/AP
In this photo taken on a government-organized tour, a damaged car lies underneath rubble opposite a damaged residential building in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, June 19. The Libyan government accused NATO of bombing a residential neighborhood in the capital and killing civilians early Sunday. NATO admitted it is responsible for the civilian deaths.

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NATO admitted for the first time in its Libya campaign that it was responsible for civilian casualties, taking responsibility for an airstrike on a civilian home in Tripoli on Sunday that killed nine and injured many more.

The mistake was probably caused by a "weapons system failure" that led a weapon intended for a military target to go astray, it said. Earlier this weekend, it made its first admission of guilt for an accidental strike on Libyan rebels.

Libyan officials accused NATO of purposely targeting civilians to turn them against Qaddafi, and government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said that civilians casualties used to be "collateral damage" but are now "direct hits," the Los Angeles Times reported.

Civilian casualties in a war that began as a military campaign to save civilian lives are raising questions about what NATO is achieving in Libya. As the effort enters its fourth month, NATO officials are showing signs of dissent about the course of action. The strikes could back up criticism in the US Congress about the operation, which some say is too unfocused and dependent on European allies that are inadequately equipped to handle the mission, The New York Times reports.

The Italian foreign minister warned on Monday that NATO could "lose the propaganda war" to Muammar Qaddafi because of civilian casualties.

"NATO is endangering its credibility; we cannot risk killing civilians," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters ahead of an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg due to discuss ways to aid rebels opposed to Gaddafi.

Frattini expressed concern that NATO was losing the propaganda war to Gaddafi and that Western media reports did not emphasise enough the good work done by the alliance every day in protecting civilians in Libya.

"We cannot continue our shortcomings in the way we communicate with the public, which doesn't keep up with the daily propaganda of Gaddafi," he said.

The Libyan government hurried reporters in Tripoli to the site soon after the Sunday strike. The New York Times described bodies being pulled from the rubble, as well as family odds and ends: children's shoes, diapers, and kitchen tools. A neighbor showed them his shattered windows, which had been broken by the force of the nearby bombing.

"In a sign of a moral and religious bankruptcy and military defeat the warplanes of NATO staged a barbaric air attack against an otherwise a peaceful residential area in Tripoli killing three members of one family," a statement from the state-run Jamahiriya News Agency said. The headline called the strike a "crime against humanity."

Qaddafi's government has blamed NATO for civilian deaths before, but Sunday's charges were the first that were not contradicted by witnesses or a lack of evidence, the Times reports.

In a column for Time Magazine, Tony Karon writes that civilian casualties are inevitable in any military effort, but that the latest casualties come at an inopportune time.

The reason there's a well-worn military euphemism – "collateral damage" – to describe incidents like Sunday morning's air strike … is that they're an inevitable consequence of waging war from the air. It happens so frequently in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the US-allied governments in both places are forced into ritual denunciation of Western military action.

But Sunday morning's debacle – caused, NATO believes, by a "weapons systems failure" that resulted in a bomb or missile missing its target – could not have come at a worse time for the Alliance, whose war effort was exhibiting signs of deep strain even before the strike that will amplify criticism from within and outside of NATO over a mission that has morphed from its UN mandate to protect civilians from being overrun by Gaddafi forces to a campaign of bombing the dictator out of power.

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