Hague: rebel deaths in Libya were 'deeply regrettable'

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The Independent Online

The British government yesterday overruled one of its own commanders by declaring that a Nato airstrike on a rebel convoy in eastern Libya, which killed at least four people, was "deeply regrettable" and that the organisation should apologise.

Angered by Thursday's attack, rebel forces said they would try to minimise the risk of "friendly fire" strikes in the contested territory between the eastern towns of Brega and Ajdabiya by painting the tops of their vehicles pink.

Earlier, Rear Admiral Russell Harding, the British deputy commander of the air campaign, denied claims by the rebels' military leader, General Abdul Fattah Younes, that the coalition were forewarned that a tank column was advancing westwards on Brega when they launched the strikes.

"I am not apologising," he said at Nato's operational HQ in Naples of the second fatal accidental attack on rebel forces in a week. "The situation on the ground was extremely fluid and remains extremely fluid, and until yesterday we did not have information."

But UK Foreign Secretary William Hague later told the BBC: "I think we should say that it is deeply regrettable. And I think when something like this happens, it doesn't cost anything to apologise."

Nato's response came as rebel forces in the besieged western city of Misrata fought General Gaddafi's troops for control of a road linking its centre to the port. A witness told Reuters that insurgents aimed to prevent the regime regaining control of the road, a lifeline for international aid efforts to help stricken civilians who have not escaped the city. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it expected a humanitarian vessel it had chartered to reach Misrata by midday today.

Along with the air offensives, Nato and the United Nations are also hoping to hobble Gaddafi's regime financially, and yesterday the US extended its sanctions blacklist to include five prominent regime officials and two funds controlled by members of Gaddafi's family. Among those hit by the sanctions – which freeze any US assets those on the blacklist may hold and prohibit US transactions with them – are Prime Minister Ali al-Mahmoud Al Baghdadi and Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem, an urbane and relatively reformist figure who had been thought a possible candidate for defection. The other officials named by the US Treasury were Gaddafi's chief of staff, Bashir Saleh, finance minister Abdulhafid Zlitni and internal security director Tohami Khaled.

Meanwhile a UN report said Gaddafi is using hundreds of mercenaries, mainly from Africa and Belarus to subdue the rebels, and that they may be involved in human rights violations. Belarus has denied the mercenaries in Libya include its citizens.

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