NATO: Libya airstrike killed troops, not civilians
BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — NATO and Libyan officials both refuted damaging claims Wednesday in the 6-month old civil war, with NATO insisting its airstrike killed soldiers and mercenaries, not 85 civilians, and the state-run TV apparently showing Moammar Gadhafi's youngest son alive to counter rebel allegations of his death.
NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said the Libyan claim of civilian casualties in an airstrike near the western front-line town of Zlitan "was not corroborated by available factual information at the site."
NATO aircraft hit a staging base and military accommodation 10 kilometers (6 miles) south of Zlitan, Lavoie said from the operational command in Naples, Italy. Four buildings and nine vehicles within the compound were struck with precision-guided munitions, he said.
"With our surveillance capabilities, we monitored this military compound very carefully before striking it," Lavoie said. "A number of military or mercenary casualties were expected due to the nature of the activity we monitored."
"Our assessment, based on the level of destruction of the buildings, confirms the likelihood of military and mercenary casualties," he said.
Meanwhile, Libyan state television broadcast images of a man it said 27-year-old Khamis Gadhafi, who commands one of the best trained and equipped units in the Libyan military.
Rebels had claimed Friday that Khamis Gadhafi was killed in another airstrike in Zlitan. The regime dismissed the allegation and said the rebels were only trying to deflect attention from the killing last week of the opposition's military commander, possibly by other rebels.
The images on television showed the son at a Tripoli hospital visiting people wounded in a NATO airstrike and said it was on Tuesday. If genuine, it would be the first time he has been seen in public since the reports of his death.
State television also showed funerals for dozens of civilians it were killed in the NATO airstrike near Zlitan, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
The channel has been airing images in black and white to honor a three-day mourning period for the 85 people the government said lost their lives in Zlitan.
A day earlier, state television ran images of Libyans rummaging through the rubble of buildings the government said were destroyed by the airstrike. They were shown digging out body parts and piling dead babies in sacks in the back of ambulances. It said 33 children and 32 women were among those killed.
Also Wednesday, rebel fighters moved closer to Libyan coastal towns held by Moammar Gadhafi, scoring another significant gain in an offensive launched over the weekend, a spokesman said.
By sundown, rebel fighters had reached positions 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of the coastal town of Zawiya and 3 miles (5 kilometers) south of the town of Surman, said Abdulsalam Sloga, a rebel spokesman in Libya's Nafusa mountain range, southwest of the capital of Tripoli. Fighters also moved forward on the road to Aziziya, a town south of Tripoli, he said.
Reaching the coast near Tripoli would mark a significant breakthrough in the civil war, which has been deadlocked for long periods. Rebels control eastern Libya, as well as the Nafusa mountains and the port city of Misrata in the west. Gadhafi has been hanging onto the rest of the territory.
Earlier Wednesday, five rebels were killed when regime forces attacked the rebel-held town of Bir Ghanam, Sloga said. Rebels pushed back Gadhafi's fighters and from Bir Ghanam advanced toward the coastal towns.
At their closest point, the Nafusa mountain range is only about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Tripoli, Gadhafi's biggest stronghold.
In other developments, the European Union said it was adding two more Libyan businesses to its list of companies and individuals targeted by sanctions. A statement said the two firms would be named Thursday in the EU's official journal.
So far, the 27-nation bloc has frozen the funds of six port authorities, 49 state-run companies and 39 individuals "involved in the serious human rights abuses in Libya," including Moammar Gadhafi and several of his family members.
Lekic reported from Brussels. Associated Press writers Adam Schreck contributed to this report from Dubai and Maamoun Youssef from Cairo.