Libya says NATO airstrike kills 9 civilians

In this photo taken on a government-organized tour, members of the media and others examine the remains of a damaged residential building in Tripoli, June 19, 2011. The Libyan government accused NATO of bombing a residential neighborhood in the capital and killing civilians, adding to its charges that the alliance is striking nonmilitary targets.
AP Photo/Adam Schreck

Last Updated 4:07 p.m. ET

TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya's government said NATO warplanes struck a residential neighborhood in the capital Sunday and killed nine civilians, including two children, adding to its accusations that the alliance is striking nonmilitary targets.

NATO acknowledged Sunday that one of its missiles - intended for a military site in Tripoli - did not strike the intended target, and that a possible weapons system failure may have caused a number of civilian casualties.

"NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes against a regime determined to use violence against its own citizens," said Lt. General Charles Bouchard, Commander of Operation Unified Protector. "Although we are still determining the specifics of this event, indications are that a weapons system failure may have caused this incident," he added.

NATO stated that every mission is planned and executed with tremendous care to avoid civilian casualties. There have been more than 11,500 sorties since the LIbya campaign began.

It was not possible to independently verify the government's account of what happened.

Qadaffi's foreign minister claimed the airstrike was a "deliberate" attack on civilians, and called for a "global jihad" on the West in response.

Early in the morning, journalists based in the Libyan capital were rushed by government officials to the damaged building, which appeared to have been partially under construction. Reporters were escorted back to the site during the day, where children's toys, teacups and dust-covered mattresses could be seen amid the rubble.

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Foreign Minister Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi told reporters nine civilians, including two children, were killed in the explosion and said 18 people were wounded. He said the strike was a "deliberate attack on a civilian neighborhood," and follows other alleged targeting of nonmilitary targets such as a hotel, oxygen factory and civilian vehicles.

"The deliberate bombing ... is a direct call for all free peoples of the world and for all Muslims to initiate a global jihad against the oppressive, criminal West and never to allow such criminal organizations as NATO to decide the future of other independent and sovereign nations," al-Obeidi said. He did not take questions.

Journalists were shown the bodies of at least four people said to have been killed in the strike, including the two young children. Foreign reporters in Tripoli are not allowed to travel and report freely and are almost always shadowed by government minders.

Salem Ali Garadi, 51, who said his brother and sister were among the victims, said five people were killed. There was no explanation for the discrepancy in death counts.

Before Sunday's alleged strike, Libya's Health Ministry said 856 civilians had been killed in NATO air attacks since they began in March. The figure could not be independently confirmed. Previous government tolls from individual strikes have proven to be exaggerated.

NATO acknowledged its planes hit targets in Tripoli and was looking into the reports.

"NATO confirms that it was operating in Tripoli last night, conducting airstrikes against a legitimate military target," Wing commander Mike Bracken said in a statement Sunday afternoon.

"NATO deeply regrets any civilian loss of life during this operation and would be very sorry if the review of this incident concluded it to be a NATO weapon," Bracken said.

A later NATO statement said the incident "is said to have occurred ... following a deliberate strike which targeted a missile site operated by pro-Qadaffi forces."

The alliance struck Tripoli again Sunday afternoon. A number of explosions could be heard in the city, and smoke could be seen rising over the southern part of the capital.

While NATO warplanes have stepped up their campaign against Qadaffi's regime over the past week, fighting has intensified between rebels and government troops outside the port city of Misrata, the main rebel stronghold in western Libya.

For weeks, the rebels had been bottled up in the city, some 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli. The eastern third of the country is under rebel control from their de facto capital, Benghazi.

On Sunday, Qadaffi's forces unleashed a heavy barrage of Grad rockets and mortars on the rebel front lines in Dafniya, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of Misrata. A medical official in Misrata hospital said that 10 rebels were killed and 54 wounded in clashes Sunday in Dafniya.

As the barrage continued into the afternoon, a steady stream of pickup trucks rushed casualties to a field hospital in Dafniya, where medics and volunteers quickly unloaded the dead from the back of the pickups and placed the wounded on stretchers. One truck pulled up with three bodies covered in blood.

"They are shelling us really badly today with everything — mortars, Grads, heat-seeking weapons, anything you can imagine," said Mustafa, 30, who was helping drive the wounded from the front.

Qadaffi's forces also ambushed a group of rebels near Dafniya early Sunday with AK-47s and heavy machine guns, according to rebel fighter Mohammed Khalil. He said the fighting was intense, with the two sides as close as 50 yards (meters) from each other. Five rebels were killed in the ambush, he said.

The two sides have also been fighting in a mountain range southwest of the capital that runs to the border with Tunisia and controls a critical supply route for the rebels.

Three days of fighting there in the border town of Nalut has killed 15 people and injured many others, said Brigadier Gomaa Ibrahim, a spokesman of for the rebel military council in the Nafusa Mountains.

"The Qadaffi forces outnumber the rebels and they are better armed and equipped," he said. Qadaffi forces are also taking shelter inside the residential suburbs of Nalut, making it hard for rebels to chase and hunt them down, he said.

Despite daily clashes in places, the rebels say they control about half of the mountain range.

In new defections from Qadaffi's military, 35 army officers led by Brig. Gen. Fouad al-Adrisi announced in a video message that they had joined the rebel ranks. The video was posted on a Facebook page for the uprising.