BENGHAZI, Libya — The deputy commander of NATO forces in Libya acknowledged Friday that the alliance struck rebel tanks outside the eastern oil town of Brega a day earlier but blamed the deadly incident on a lack of communication from the rebels.
Rear Adm. Russell Harding said "it would appear that two of our strikes yesterday may have resulted in the deaths of a number of TNC forces," referring to the Transitional National Council, the rebels' de facto government. Doctors said that at least five people were killed in the Thursday morning strike, the second friendly fire incident in less than a week involving NATO forces and the rebels battling Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi.
"I'm not apologizing," Harding told reporters in Naples, Italy. "The situation on the ground was extremely fluid and remains extremely fluid. And up until yesterday we had no information that the TNC or the opposition forces were using tanks."
Harding's assertion directly contradicted the rebels' military commander, Gen. Abdulfatah Younis, who said that his forces informed NATO that they were moving about 20 tanks from the rebel capital of Benghazi to the frontline near Brega. The tanks included several Soviet-made T-72s that belonged to Gadhafi's army, but which rebels had seized in recent battles.
"We had supplied them with all the information and (said) that they would be transported on tank transports and told them the direction they are going to," Younis said Thursday night.
Rebels said that missiles launched from a low-flying warplane struck four tanks and a passenger bus carrying fighters about 12 miles outside of Brega. Rebels who were injured in the attack expressed shock that NATO warplanes could mistake a convoy of their tanks — which they said were stationary and flying the tricolor rebel flag — for those loyal to Gadhafi.
The incident came five days after at least 13 rebels were killed in another NATO airstrike on Brega, and it underscored confusion between the alliance, which took over command of the U.N.-ordered no-fly zone earlier this week, and the inexperienced rebels, who have been unable to hold their ground against Gadhafi's forces along the pivotal coastal Mediterranean road.
Despite Younis's claims that the rebels are in "minute-by-minute communication" with NATO, the two sides seem increasingly to be at odds. Nearly 12 hours after the Brega incident occurred, Younis said that he hadn't directly communicated with NATO commanders about it, and Harding said Friday that he wasn't aware of Younis's comments from the day before.
In recent days rebels and opposition supporters in eastern Libya have accused NATO of failing to do enough to protect civilians.
Opposition officials have voiced alarm at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Misrata, a rebel-held city in western Libya that Gadhafi's forces have attacked with snipers and artillery barrages, and complained the Turkish navy, under NATO command, stopped a ship from delivering weapons and medical supplies to Misrata because the weapons would contravene an arms embargo.
Harding took exception to allegations, saying that NATO has allowed 12 ships to reach Libya, four for humanitarian missions and eight to carry out evacuations. He said that the alliance has flown more than 1,500 air sorties over the past week, more than half of which carried out airstrikes against tanks, armored personnel carriers, ammunition dumps and other targets.
"It may not be apparent to TNC forces — to whom we don't have to prove where we are — but we have been attacking targets that directly threaten civilians, civilian population areas or are linked to those forces that are doing so," Harding said.
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