Libyan officials said a Nato strike had hit a civilian house in the capital and killed several residents, on Sunday, an allegation, which, if confirmed, could sow fresh doubts inside the alliance about its mission in Libya.
Reporters, who were taken to a residential area, saw a body pulled out of the rubble of a destroyed building. Later, in a hospital, they were shown the bodies of a child and two others who, officials said, were among a total of seven people killed in the strike.
“There was intentional and deliberate targeting of the civilian houses,” deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim told reporters. “This is another sign of the brutality of the West.”
Nato made no immediate comment about the air strike, but has said in the past it only targets military or command-and-control sites. There was no way for reporters to verify that all the bodies they were shown came from the building.
Libyan claims of civilian casualties from Nato attacks have sometimes been received sceptically by international observers. On one occasion, Libyan officials presented a wounded child as the victim of an air strike but medical staff told a foreign journalist that she was hurt in a road accident.
Libyan authorities have to date been unable to prove that substantial numbers of civilians have been killed by the Nato strikes, but if that changes it could weaken the already wavering commitment of some alliance members.
Nato has been pounding targets in Libya for months in what the alliance says is an operation to protect civilians who rebelled against the 41-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi.
Rebels from the city of Misrata, about 200km east of Tripoli, have been trying to push west towards the capital, but on Sunday they took heavy casualties when they came under fire from pro-Gaddafi forces.
Four fighters were killed and 18 wounded, according to a doctor at a field hospital.
A Reuters reporter at the field hospital said he saw a procession of pick-up trucks arriving from the front carrying the wounded and the dead, some of them covered up with blankets.
“Gaddafi’s forces were underground [in trenches]. We were patrolling and they ambushed us,” said a rebel.
“My cousin was injured on Saturday. And today my friend was killed. My group, we’re all close friends,” he said.
Last week, a Nato aircraft dropped leaflets around the front line warning pro-Gaddafi fighters they would be targeted by attack helicopters if they did not lay down their arms. But rebels say there has been little sign of the alliance.
“We don’t know what Nato is doing,” said the doctor, called Nury, who was tending the wounded at the field hospital.