NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya left 72 civilians dead last year, a leading human rights group has said, accusing the military alliance of failing to acknowledge the deaths.
In a 76-page report released on Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged NATO to provide “prompt and suitable compensation” to families for the civilian deaths, injuries and loss of property.
HRW’s field investigation at the sites of eight NATO air strikes found that 20 women and 24 children were among the 72 people killed.
“To date, NATO has failed to acknowledge these casualties or to examine how and why they occurred,” the New York-based group said in the report.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the western military alliance “made it very clear to the Libyan authorities we stand ready to co-operate with them in any review process they deem necessary”.
David Mepham, the UK director of HRW, said his organisation had researchers in Libya throughout the conflict.
“We have been to all eight sites that we refer to in our report, which NATO has not done,” he told Al Jazeera.
“One of the striking things is that we’ve been there on multiple occasions, we’ve looked at the evidence, we’ve talked to people who were there at the time of the attacks.
“NATO has not been to the sites, so I think we are better placed to know what happened, and our conclusion is that at least 72 civilians were killed as a result of NATO air strikes, and NATO needs to properly investigate this.”
HRW reported a higher death toll than an investigation conducted by Amnesty International, which said in March that 55 people, including 16 children and 14 women, were killed in strikes in Tripoli and the towns of Zliten, Majer, Sirte and Brega.
Security Council rift
The NATO campaign, which was authorised by the United Nations, played a key role in helping rebels bring down Muamer Gaddafi, the former Libyan leader, but it left a deep rift in the UN Security Council.
Russia, China, South Africa and India all say NATO’s tactics breached UN resolutions, but the Western alliance insists that its action were legal and saved civilians from a massacre.
“NATO conducted the campaign for Libya with unprecedented care and precision and to a standard exceeding that required by international humanitarian law,” Lungescu said.
“NATO did everything possible to minimise risks to civilians, but in a complex military campaign, that risk can never be zero.
“We deeply regret any instance of civilian casualties for which NATO may have been responsible.”
She added that the alliance “looked into each credible allegation” of harm to civilians and “confirmed that the specific targets struck by NATO were legitimate military targets”.
HRW acknowledged that NATO took great care to minimise civilian deaths during the seven-month campaign, in which the alliance flew about 26,000 sorties and hit almost 6,000 targets.
“But information and investigations are needed to explain why 72 civilians died,” Fred Abrahams, the report’s principal author, said.
“Attacks are allowed only on military targets, and serious questions remain in some incidents about what exactly NATO forces were striking.”