At least 72 Libyan civilians were killed last year by NATO air attacks, a third of them children and teenagers, according to a report by Human Rights Watch released Monday.
The report raises questions about whether the Western alliance bombed Libyan villages that were not legitimate military targets, despite NATO’s insistence that its own review shows that all bombing sites were valid targets.
NATO said it used “unprecedented care and precision” to spare civilians during the air assaults, meant to protect the Libyan people against military attacks carried out under strongman Moammar Kadafi. The air attacks were part of a campaign in Libya authorized by the United Nations Security Council in March 2011 that helped oust Kadafi, who was captured and killed in October.
“Not one of the targets struck was approved for attack, or was in fact attacked, if NATO had any evidence or other reason to believe that civilians would be injured or killed in a strike,” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said in a February letter to a United Nations commission investigating human rights violations in Libya.
Human Rights Watch says in the report that the death toll was low for such a lengthy and extensive bombing campaign. The human rights group denounced exaggerated claims about civilian killings put forward by critics of the NATO attacks on Libya; Kadafi officials at one point claimed more than 800 people were killed.
But the human rights group, which investigated eight NATO strikes in which civilians were killed, said it found no evidence of the military at two sites. At five others, the group reports finding “possible signs of a military presence,” such as a military-style shirt in the rubble, but no firm proof that government forces were there. Survivors and witnesses said they knew of no military activity.
“I just need an answer from NATO: Why did you destroy my home and kill my family?” Faiz Fathi Jfara, a resident of the Libyan town of Bani Walid, is quoted as saying in the report.
The findings are similar to those of earlier investigations into the Libyan conflict by other groups, including an independent commission mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
NATO said Libyan forces often wore ordinary clothing, drove regular vehicles and used mosques, hospitals and other civilian buildings.
The alliance also said it had no mandate to investigate on the ground after the airstrikes, but said it had backed an announced Libyan investigation into the deaths and cooperated with the U.N. inquiry, providing written information about why it had struck specific targets.
Human Rights Watch argued that the Libyan task force was unlikely to criticize NATO because the alliance helped defeat Kadafi. The U.N. inquiry, which found that 60 civilians had been killed, recommended additional investigation, saying it couldn't draw conclusions about the “military utility” of some targets.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles