19th Sep 2019

Nato frets over civilian casualties in Libya

The complexities of the Libyan war were driven home to Western powers on Thursday (31 March) as Nato warned rebels not to kill civilians while itself facing charges of killing civilians in an airstrike.

Nato has pledged to investigate claims that a Western airstrike caused 40 civilian casualties in the Libyan capital, as reported by a Catholic news agency, Fides, quoting the Vatican's envoy to Tripoli, Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli.

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  • Nato is to investigate whether one of the Western strikes caused civilian deaths (Photo: Defence Images)

"I am aware of this news report," Nato commander Charles Bouchard said during a video-conference from Naples with the Brussels press corps. "I take every one of those issues seriously, but our mission began today," he noted, hours after the military alliance took over command from a British, French and US-led coalition.

Civilian casualties are already a big problem for Nato in Afghanistan. But Bouchard insisted that rules of engagement are strict and that targets are selected carefully.

Highlighting Nato's task of backing armed rebels who may themselves be targeting civilians, Bouchard said: "I would like to offer closing thoughts for those who are acting against civilian populations in civilian centres: you would be ill-advised to continue such activities. I recommend that you cease these activities."

Nato spokeswoman Oana Lungescu added that the UN-backed mandate of operation Unified Protector to protect civilian lives "applies to both sides." "Whoever targets, risks becoming a target. We will apply the mandate across the board," she said.

Rebels have received similar warnings from Washington.

"We've been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Gaddafi or pro-opposition," a senior Obama administration official told the New York Times. "We are working very hard behind the scenes with the rebels so we don't confront a situation where we face a decision to strike the rebels to defend civilians."

Early accounts of the fighting indicate that rebels targeted sub-Saharan Africans generally labelled as 'Gaddafi mercenaries.'

The BBC on 25 February cited a Turkish construction worker as saying: "We had 70-80 people from Chad working for our company. They were cut dead with pruning shears and axes, attackers saying: 'You are providing troops for Gaddafi.' The Sudanese were also massacred. We saw it for ourselves."

Allies divided on arming the rebels

For his part, Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Stockholm on Thursday that the alliance has not taken any decision on arming rebels.

"As far as Nato is concerned, we will fully implement the UN Security Council resolution which requests the enforcement of the arms embargo, and the purpose of the arms embargo is to stop the flow of weapons into Libya," Rasmussen said. "We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm them."

Earlier this week, Britain and the US said the UN resolutions allow arms transfers to rebels despite an arms ban on Gaddafi. The issue is contested in other capitals, however. Belgium on Wednesday warned that the move could alienate Arab nations, while Danish foreign minister Lene Espersen said her country, which is also part of Unified Protector, would be against it as well.

Sixteen out of Nato's 28 members have put warships and fighter jets into Unified Protector. The US, France, Britain and Italy are the main contributors. Non-Nato members Sweden, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also taking part.

Nato countries Albania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia are not getting involved.

EU mini-mission

The EU on Friday is likely to give a green light to a 'humanitarian support mission' to be called Eufor Libya, according to Bruxelles2, a well-respected blog on security and defence issues.

Eufor Libya will aim to secure 'humanitarian corridors' - the free movement of aid workers and the creation of air and maritime bridges for the repatriation of refugees.

The total budget for the four-month long operation is to be capped at €7.9 million, taken from national contributions according to the relative GDP of EU member states, with the exception of Denmark, which has opted out of the bloc's common security and defence policy.

The same blog also reports that the man in charge of Eufor Libya will be Italian rear admiral Claudio Gaudiosi.


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