NATO Probing Reports of an Airstrike on Libyan Rebels

April 2, 2011

AJDABIYA, Libya –  NATO said Saturday that it was investigating Libyan rebel reports that a coalition warplane had struck a rebel position that was firing into the air near the front line of the battle with Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces.

Rebel fighters told Reuters that at least 10 were killed at the scene. A fighter said some of Qaddafi’s forces sneaked into rebel lines and fired anti-aircraft guns in the air to provoke the attack.

The number of deaths could not be immediately confirmed.

Rebels told The Associated Press that the airstrike was about 12 miles east of the town of Brega late Friday.

Mohammad Bedrise, a doctor in a nearby hospital, said three burned bodies had been brought in by men who said they had been hit after firing a heavy machine gun in the air in celebration. Idris Kadiki, a 38-year-old mechanical engineer, said he had seen an ambulance and three cars burning after an airstrike.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the coalition was looking into the reports.

The loosely organized rebel force had been acting in a more disciplined fashion in recent days. On Friday only former military officers and the lightly trained volunteers serving under them were allowed on the front lines. Some were recent arrivals, hoping to rally against forces loyal to the Libyan leader who have pushed rebels back about 100 miles this week.

The better organized fighters, unlike some of their predecessors, can tell the difference between incoming and outgoing fire. They know how to avoid sticking to the roads, a weakness in the untrained forces that Qaddafi’s troops have exploited. And they know how to take orders.

The greater organization was a sign that military forces that split from the regime to join the rebellion were finally taking a greater role in the fight after weeks trying to organize. Fighters cheered Friday as one of their top commanders — former Interior Minister Abdel-Fattah Younis — drove by in a convoy toward the front.

It was too early to say if the improvements will tip the fight in the rebels’ favor. They have been struggling to exploit the opportunity opened by international airstrikes hammering Qaddafi’s forces since March 19.

In a sign the strikes may be eroding Qaddafi’s resilience, his government is trying to hold talks with the U.S., Britain and France in hopes of ending the air campaign, said Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister who has served as a Qaddafi envoy during the crisis. “We are trying to find a mutual solution,” he told Britain’s Channel 4 News on Friday.

British officials met with Mohammed Ismail, a Libyan government aide who happened to be in London visiting relatives, and told him Qaddafi must quit, two people familiar with the issue said Friday. The two demanded anonymity to discuss details.

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