TRIPOLI, (AFP) — NATO defended the credibility of its air war in Libya after a bomb misfired killing civilians, while Italy called Wednesday for an immediate halt to hostilities to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
On the diplomatic front, China said on Wednesday it recognises Libya’s opposition National Transitional Council (NTC) as an “important dialogue partner.”
“I would suggest that our reputation and credibility is unquestionable,” said Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the NATO mission’s military spokesman.
“What is questionable is the Gaddafi regime’s use of human shields, (and) firing missiles from mosques,” Bracken told reporters from operation headquarters in Naples, Italy.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned on Tuesday that NATO’s credibility was “at risk” following the civilian casualties, and urged it to ensure it was not providing ammunition to Gaddafi’s propaganda war.
Frattini followed up his comments in a speech on Wednesday to the lower house of parliament in Rome.
“With regard to NATO, it is fair to ask for increasingly detailed information on results as well as precise guidelines on the dramatic errors involving civilians,” he said.
The blunder — an embarrassment for a mission that prides itself on protecting Libya’s people from the regime — came on the heels of a friendly fire incident last week in which a column of rebel vehicles was hit by NATO warplanes.
“If you look at our track record, we have taken utmost care to avoid civilian casualties and we will continue to do so,” said NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu.
Frattini in his address to parliament on Wednesday also called for “an immediate humanitarian suspension of hostilities” in Libya so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to the population.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi hailed the rebels’ NTC as “an important domestic political force.”
Since it was established, he said, the council’s “representative nature has increased daily and it has gradually become an important domestic political force.”
“China views it as an important dialogue partner,” Yang added, after talks with war-torn Libya’s senior rebel leader Mahmud Jibril.
Beijing consistently opposes moves deemed to interfere in the affairs of other countries.
But it has held a number of meetings with Libyan rebels in recent weeks in an apparent sign that it wants to help bring about a resolution of the conflict in the oil-rich north African state, where it has sizeable economic interests.
Libyan state television and official news agency JANA meanwhile reported Wednesday that NATO warplanes had carried out raids on the towns of Khoms and Nalut in western Libya.
NATO targeted two checkpoints in the Khoms region 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Tripoli, the television report said. It added that the control points were “civilian” intended to “organise traffic movements.”
If the strikes were confirmed, it would mean the Western alliance had moved into a new stage of operations in the west of Libya, aiming at checkpoints on the highways leading into the capital Tripoli.
Until now, NATO had limited itself to attacks on military installations and armour.
JANA reported raids on Al-Ghazaya in the Nalut region southwest of Tripoli. This region has for months been the scene of violent clashes between rebels and troops loyal to Gaddafi.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch accused Gaddafi’s forces of laying land mines in the strategic Nafusa mountains near the border with Tunisia to counter rebel attacks there.