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Tripoli claims NATO strike killed dozens of civilians

Libyan officials said on Tuesday 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.
Image: A man shows children books found in home officials say was destroyed by NATO bombings in Majar
In a picture taken Tuesday on a guided government tour, a man shows children's school books found in the home of Ali Hamed Gafez which Libyan officials say was bombed by NATO forces in Majar, a village east of Tripoli.Caren Firouz / Reuters
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Libyan officials said on Tuesday 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 oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi that has proved much longer, bloodier and more costly than its backers had expected.

A spokesman for Gadhafi'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 150 km (90 miles) east of Tripoli.

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

Standing on a pile of rubble, Moussa Ibrahim told reporters: "This is a crime beyond imagination. Everything about this place is civilian."

There was no evidence of weaponry at the farmhouses but neither was there immediately visible blood or body parts.

Government officials provided footage that appeared to show men combing through the rubble at one of the bomb sites at night retrieving human remains, including the bodies of two children.

This correspondent, taken to the hospital in Zlitan by Libyan government officials, counted 20 body bags in one area, some of them stacked one on top of the other.

Most of the dead at the Zlitan hospital appeared to be men but some were children. Medical workers opened some of the body bags. One contained the body of a child who appeared to be about two years old. Another had inside the remains of a child.

In total, reporters saw about 30 bodies at the Zlitan hospital. Officials said the rest of the people killed in the air strike had been taken to other hospitals, but Reuters was unable to verify that information independently.

Hundreds of men also attended a burial in Majar, carrying a parade of simple wooden coffins, draped with flags.

"They (NATO) do not differentiate between soldiers, children and old people," said Abdulkader Al-Hawali, a fifth-year medical student at the hospital in Zlitan.

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

"This was a legitimate target and by striking it NATO has reduced the pro-Gadhafi forces' ability to threaten and attack civilians," Colonel Roland Lavoie told a regular briefing.

"We do not have evidence of civilian casualties at this stage, although casualties among military personnel, including mercenaries, are very likely due to the nature of the target."

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

Gadhafi has denied attacking civilians, and says the NATO bombing campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya's plentiful oil.

Libya's conflict began in February when thousands of people protested against Gadhafi. NATO strikes began in March after a U.N. Security Council resolution authorized the operation in order to protect civilians.

Western powers say the Libyan leader must relinquish power but despite months of pounding by NATO bombs, defections from his inner circle and international sanctions, Gadhafi is showing no signs of wanting to quit.

In an effort to tighten the noose, the European Union is set this week to widen sanctions by adding a Libyan oil firm and a government administrative department to a blacklist, bringing to 49 the number of Libyan entities targeted by EU sanctions.

"These measures show the determination of the international community in maintaining the isolation of the regime in Tripoli," the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Power and petrol shortages have been worsening in Gadhafi's Tripoli stronghold, deepening public frustration.

NATO said Tuesday its warplanes had also bombed a Libyan warship docked in Tripoli after observing that weapons were being taken from it that were expected to be used in attacks.

NATO defends another strike
NATO also rejected growing international criticism of its airstrike on Libyan television last month, saying Tuesday it has no evidence the attack caused any casualties.

Libyan officials have said the July 31 airstrike on the state television's satellite dishes killed three journalists and injured 15 others.

But NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero said the alliance had not deliberately targeted jorunalists and disputed the claim that anyone had been hurt.