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Libya claims more civilians killed by NATO airstrike

/ Source: NBC News and news services

Libya's government said an airstrike destroyed a large family compound west of Tripoli Monday belonging to a close associate of Moammar Gadhafi, killing at least 15 people, including three children.

But NATO told NBC News an attack struck a command and control center west of Tripoli in vicinity of Zawiya that was involved in the coordination and systematic attack of civilians.

Gadhafi's regime has repeatedly accused NATO of targeting civilians in an attempt to rally support against international intervention into Libya's civil war. The alliance insists it tries to avoid killing civilians.

Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said NATO bombs struck the compound belonging to Khoweildi al-Hamidi outside the city of Surman, some 40 miles west of Tripoli, around 4 a.m. local time Monday.

NATO initially said it had not hit any targets in the Surman area overnight. But a spokesman in Naples, Italy, later said new information indicated the alliance conducted a "precision strike" on a "high-level command and control node" near Surman in the early hours of Monday. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with NATO regulations.

The commander of NATO's Libya operation, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, said the "strike will greatly degrade the Gadhafi regime's forces' ability to carry out their babaric assaults on the Libyan people."

"Wherever Gadhafi tries to hide his command and control centers, we will find them," he said.

NATO officials have repeatedly said the alliance does not target individuals. The spokesman said Monday he could not say whether the strike had caused civilian casualties.

Al-Hamidi is a longtime regime insider who took part in the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power. He reportedly commanded a battalion that crushed rebels in the nearby western city of Zawiya in March, and his daughter is married to one of Gadhafi's sons, Saadi.

Ibrahim said al-Hamidi escaped the airstrikes unharmed but that three children, two of them al-Hamidi's grandchildren, were among the 15 people killed. Officials said he was inside a still-intact building at the time of the strike.

'Want to break our spirit'
"They (NATO) are targeting civilians. ... The logic is intimidation," Ibrahim said. "They want Libyans to give up the fight ... they want to break our spirit."

Foreign journalists based in the Libyan capital were taken by government officials to the walled compound, where at least two buildings had been blasted to rubble. A pair of massive craters could be seen in the dusty ground, and rescue service workers with sniffer dogs were scouring the rubble in search of people. The smell of smoke was still in the air.

Bombs also appeared to have ripped holes through the top of a large tent sheltering cars, smashing the floor and mangling vehicles inside. The windows were shattered in a circular sitting room containing old framed photos said to be of al-Hamidi, and a deer kept in an enclosure with other animals had a broken antler and was bleeding from the mouth.

Another building outside the compound, next to a communications tower, was also flattened, and walls were blown out of an adjacent house. A mosque across the street and a school next door were not damaged.

Journalists were later taken to a hospital in the nearby city of Sabratha, where medical workers showed them the bodies of about eight to 10 people, including those of two children, said to have been killed in the strike. Some of the bodies appeared charred, while others were in pieces. Portraits of Gadhafi hung on the hospital walls as armed men in military fatigues — some guards from the compound — roamed the hallways.

NATO, which has a mandate to protect Libyan civilians, has rejected government allegations that it targets civilians. However, mistakes have occurred.

Civilian casualties acknowledged
The alliance acknowledged that one of its airstrikes on Sunday accidentally struck a residential neighborhood in the capital, killing civilians.

State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland said that "We join NATO officials in regretting any loss of civilian life. As you know," she continued "these missions are extremely difficult. They are extremely dangerous."

Overall, Nuland called the NATO mission "extremely effective" and an "essential component of our effort to make clear to Khaddafy that his days are numbered, that it's time for him to go."

A coalition including France, Britain and the United States launched the first strikes against Gadhafi's forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19. NATO, which is joined by a number of Arab allies, assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31.

From their de facto capital of Benghazi, the rebels have taken over much of the eastern half of the country. They also control pockets in the west, mainly around the port city of Misrata and in the Nafusa mountains south of Tripoli.

Switching sides
More than 20 troops from Gadhafi forces have defected from a brigade based in southern Libya and joined the rebellion, rebels said on Monday.

Four of the men were presented to reporters in Benghazi on Monday. Rebels said they had escaped from Gaddafi's unit based in the Katroun region of southern Libya this month.

"We have now defected from the regime. The Gaddafi regime has lost all credibility. Therefore we declare that we offer our services to the National Transitional Council in Benghazi," said Major Lamin Sidi Ibrahim al Tabouwi, one of the men.

There was no way to immediately verify their stories. Rebels said a total of 22 soldiers and officers as well as three civilians had escaped together from the southern unit.

In Luxembourg, European Union foreign ministers condemned the Libyan regime, saying in a statement that "time is not on Gadhafi's side," and that the Libyan leader "has lost all legitimacy to remain in power."

The 27 foreign ministers also toughened the bloc's sanctions against the regime by adding six port authorities controlled by Gadhafi's forces to its asset-freeze list. The ports were not named.

In a similar move, the central bank of the United Arab Emirates ordered a freeze on the accounts of 19 Libyan individuals and institutions while an investigation of the funds is under way into possible links to Gadhafi's regime, according to local media.

The reports gave no further details, and officials at the UAE's central bank were not immediately available for comment.