Is NATO conducting a civilian casualty-free air campaign in Libya?

....or are civilian casualties beginning to rise?

The air war in Libya is now being taken forward by a shrinking alliance. Norway has withdrawn its jets and Italy pulled an aircraft carrier. This leaves the 28-nation alliance with combat planes from seven nations to finish a job begun four months ago that many hoped would last just weeks. This has led to some flip-flopping among allies, with the ‘big three’ (US, France and Britain) all recently indicating that Gaddafi could perhaps stay in Libya after all if he cedes power.

Despite a lack of clarity about Gaddafi’s fate, NATO continues to maintain a high tempo of aerial operations, which have averaged more than 100 sorties per day including around 50 missions aimed at hitting targets. As of August 3rd, a total of 17,691 sorties, including 6,701 strike sorties, have been conducted. In contrast, during the bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia, NATO aircraft flew 38,400 sorties, including 10,484 strike sorties. Approximately 500 civilians were killed during the campaign.

In Libya, however, NATO dismisses claims of any civilian casualties. On the 14 July, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that the alliance has "no confirmed information" about possible civilian casualties as a result of its bombing. While Libyan officials’ claims that the alliance's airstrikes have killed more than 1,100 people are regularly discredited in the Western media as propaganda, little or no attention has been paid to NATO’s claim of a civilian casualty-free campaign. Who to believe?

NATO Watch Verdict: Reading NATO briefings and those of defence ministries from aircraft-contributing member nations like the UK, you could almost believe it was a casualty-free campaign altogether, because the alliance is also reticent when it comes to any assessment of how many military deaths (among Gaddafi forces) have taken place. The official briefings completely ‘blank out’ any human cost and are couched in the language of ‘tanks, buildings and plant’ destroyed, but never people.

Even taking at face value NATO’s claim, in the words of the Secretary General, that the alliance is “extremely careful and cautious in identifying legitimate military targets and avoiding civilian casualties", and also making allowances for the probability that today’s munitions are ‘smarter’ than those deployed against the former Yugoslavia, it still remains inconceivable that the NATO air campaign has resulted in zero civilian casualties. NATO acknowledges that there have been some so-called ‘friendly fire’ incidents in which rebel fighters have been accidentally killed, so why the reluctance to admit to civilian casualties? In addition to the allegations of three civilians killed in the airstrike against Libyan TV satellites discussed earlier (which admittedly took place after the NATO Secretary General’s remarks) there have been a number of credible media reports of NATO attacks which are said to have killed and/or injured civilians.

These include: three men killed picnicking by a harbour in Sirte in March; an 18 month old boy killed in Khorum in March; seven people between the ages of 12-20 killed in a rebel held area just outside of Brega in April; 10 students injured when the University in Tripoli was hit in April; at least nine killed (including two children) and eighteen injured in the strongly anti-Gaddafi Tripoli neighbourhood of Souk al-Juma in June, as NATO as good as admitted at the time; at least fifteen civilians (including three children) at a home/'command and control node' in Sorman, west of Tripoli, in June; and a mother and two children in Zlitan as recently as August 4.

Of course it is difficult for NATO, journalists and human rights groups to independently check Libyan claims of civilian casualties, but to dismiss all such allegations out of hand is an unacceptable piece of spin on the part of NATO. It would surely be better for NATO to admit that any killing of civilians has been unintentional and very rare, and to commit to introducing a casualty recording mechanism in Libya that is open, transparent, and available to public scrutiny.