Libya says Nato strike killed 85 civilians

Western coalition denies claim and say they attacked a valid target, while the rebels plan a new advance despite the internecine fighting in their own camp.

A rebel fighter mans a weapon near the Libyan National Transitional Council in Benghazi yesterday. The NTC faces a major crisis as its executive was sacked.
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ZLITAN, LIBYA // Libyan officials said yesterday that dozens of civilians had been killed in a Nato strike on a cluster of farmhouses east of Tripoli, but the alliance said it hit a legitimate military target.

A strike causing large numbers of civilian casualties could undermine support in some Nato nations for a campaign to topple the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

A spokesman for Col Qaddafi's government, who took foreign reporters to the scene of the strike, said 85 people had been killed when missiles struck farm compounds in the village of Majar, about 150km east of Tripoli.

He said the dead included 33 children, 32 women and 20 men.

At a news conference in Brussels, a Nato military spokesman said the target of the strikes had been a military staging area that was being used to support government attacks on civilians.

"This was a legitimate target and by striking it Nato has reduced the pro-Qaddafi forces' ability to threaten and attack civilians," Colonel Roland Lavoie said.

Meanwhile, a Libyan rebel spokesman said yesterday that two people had been killed and 14 wounded in fighting around an oil terminal town in the east of the country. Mohammad Al Rijali said rebel forces advanced yesterday into Brega, which is located 200km south-west of Benghazi. Rebels have been trying to dislodge Qaddafi forces from the town since April.

Off the battlefield, the rebels have been giving indications of being at war among themselves.

In Benghazi, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), sacked the entire executive office of his government late on Monday.

NTC officials said he dismissed several top ministers - including those responsible for finance, defence and information - while calling for root and branch reform.

Prime Minister Mahmud Jibril has been assigned to create a reformed body, his spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said.

It was the latest dramatic phase in the turmoil sparked by the assassination of the rebel military commander, General Abdel Fatah Younis, in late July.

The NTC has come under fire for its role in events leading up to Younis's death, as well as its handling of the aftermath.

Although details remain sketchy and his death is still under investigation, it is known that an arrest warrant had been signed by the NTC executive member Ali Essawy, raising allegations that the NTC unknowingly helped facilitate Younis's murder.

In Tripoli yesterday, Col Qaddafi's government declared three days of mourning for the victims of the Nato attack, according to state television.

Journalists were taken to a hospital in Zlitan by the Libyan government, where 20 body bags were counted in one room.

Medical workers opened some of the bags. One contained the body of a child who appeared to be about 2. Another had the remains of a child.

In total, reporters saw about 30 bodies at the Zlitan hospital. Officials said the rest of the people killed had been taken to other hospitals, but these claims could not be verified.

Nato forces have been mounting regular attacks, from both sea and air, on targets around Zlitan, where the alliance said government forces were killing and persecuting civilians who were trying to end his 41-year rule.

Col Qaddafi has denied attacking civilians, and said the Nato bombing campaign was an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya's oil.

Libya's conflict began in February when thousands of people protested against Col Qaddafi's rule.

Western powers have said the Libyan leader must relinquish power, but despite months of pounding by Nato bombs, defections from his inner circle and international sanctions, Col Qaddafi has shown no signs of wanting to quit.

If confirmed, the casualties in the village of Majar would not be the first time that Nato activity in Libya has resulted in civilian deaths.

In June, Nato admitted it destroyed a house in Tripoli in which Libyan officials said nine civilians were killed. The alliance blamed a missile malfunction.

Shortly afterwards, the Libyan government reported that about 20 people had been killed in a strike on the home of a member of Libya's 12-strong Revolutionary Command Council, led by Col Qaddafi.

Libyan officials said hundreds of civilians have been killed since the Nato bombing campaign began. But in most cases they have not supplied firm proof, while in some instances the evidence provided has been contradictory.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse