Libyan rebels ask: 'Do they want Gaddafi to win?'

Widespread anger as mistaken Nato air strike on rebel tanks kills 13 fighters

The difficult relationship between Nato forces and the Libyan rebels came under further strain yesterday after Western aircraft killed 13 fighters and injured many more in a mistaken attack on rebel tanks.

The incident, the third in recent days in which Nato have hit the wrong side, caused widespread anger in Ajdabiya among rebels, many of whom also believe that the western air strikes should have begun sooner and gone further. And it led to further recriminations between the Benghazi rebel leadership and the coalition authorities.

The head of the rebel army, General Abdel Fattah Younes, described yesterday's air strike as "vicious", and claimed that Nato had been kept informed of the movements of the tank convoy. "We have asked Nato what happened. We have not yet received any answers," he said.

"What we would like is a rational and convincing account of what happened. We would also like to know why the attack was carried out on our soldiers while a Gaddafi force, which advanced towards Ajdabiya on three fronts, was not attacked in any way."

The hospital in Ajdabiya has accepted a stream of the dead and the maimed from this savage civil war, civilian and military, most of them victims of regime forces. But the bodies which arrived yesterday were the result of "friendly fire". They were revolutionaries who had been hit in the air strikes, 30km from Brega, on the main road which has become a battleground in the eastern front.

Rebel fighters wept as they hugged each other kneeling on the floor of a corridor with bloodstained uniforms piled up in the corner. Along with the grief there was deep anger, directed not this time at Muammar Gaddafi, but the West, for the massacre of their comrades. A militiaman in a coma with severe burns all over his body, his face half-hidden by a thick layer of white antiseptic cream, was carried into Ajdabiya by other fighters shouting in anger and in grief.

In another area, Yasin Ibadullah had just seen what remained of another victim, his friend Saleh Mohammed Ali, and he was in no mood to hear about the problems pilots may have in finding targets in a fluctuating frontline. "They have all the equipment, all the technology, we haven't got them," he shouted. "They must have seen we were going forward, we were attacking, we were going forward. Why did they do this? Do they want Gaddafi to win?"

The soldiers were not the only ones to express their anger at the botched attack. Dr Suleiman Rifadi, studying an X-ray of one of the wounded, asked: "Instead of attacking us, why don't they bomb the Gaddafi troops?"

Earlier yesterday, the rebels had brought up flat-bed trucks carrying tanks and vehicles with multiple rocket launchers on the back. This seems to have been part of a general move to steady the front line between Ajdabiya and the oil town of Brega. Guards at the last checkpoint out of Ajdabiya on the road to Brega were turning back fighters who had not been authorised. Some refugees were still coming from the south with cheap possessions including blankets and white plastic chairs piled in the back of pick-ups.

The arrival of the reinforcements immediately led to a disaster. Nato pilots presumably thought that all tanks and armoured vehicles in this highly contested area two hours drive south of Benghazi must be fighting for the Libyan government.

The first sign that something was wrong came when militiamen hurriedly cleared the road at the southern entrance to Ajdabiya, which is marked by an arch looking like a McDonald's sign. Ambulances coming from the direction of Brega raced through with gunmen in pick-ups shouting that they had been bombed.

As has often been the case in this conflict, there was confusion about what led up to the pulverising bombing. Some of the rebels said they were going towards the city, under regime control after changing hands several times. There was also a sudden retreat, a recurring feature of this campaign.

It is not the first such incident. Last Saturday 13 rebel fighters were killed 10 miles along the same road after Nato jets, believed to be A-10 Warthog tankbusters, responded to "celebratory firing" from an anti-aircraft gun into the air with missile launches. Three vehicles, including an ambulance, were destroyed. It is to precisely prevent such "collateral damage" that a British military team is currently in Benghazi putting in a secure communications system between Benghazi and Nato headquarters at Mons in Belgium.

The revolutionaries have reached an agreement with Nato to paint the top of their vehicles yellow to be identified as "friendly forces". A rebel commander, Mustafa Gadr, claimed that this has been adhered to by his fighters. But while some cars have giant red, black and green flags tied to their roofs, there is little evidence of the yellow markings in the field among the dozens of cars and trucks, most of them privately owned, which pour forward every day.

But the rebels had little time for such explanations. "This time there was no one firing at anything in the sky, so they could not have thought that they were under attack," said Ahmed Misani, a 33-year-old engineer fighting for the revolution. "They could not have thought that we were Gaddafi men. We would like to know what they [the pilots] were thinking when they dropped those bombs. They would not see the children of the men who died. We would like to know what we should tell them."

One series of attacks for which Nato was absolved of blame by the rebel government was at oilfields at Sarir and Messala, south of Ajdabiya. The Tripoli regime had claimed RAF planes had targeted the field, causing extensive damage.

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