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Libyan civilian toll in NATO strike still unclear

MAJAR, Libya — When late-night NATO airstrikes rained down on this hardscrabble farming village, then-leader Moammar Gadhafi's propaganda machine kicked into overdrive.

Closely monitored journalists were led on a tour of the site by sobbing locals, who pointed out powerful visuals such as a teddy bear or a woman's pink shoe amid the rubble. Regime officials claimed that the Aug. 8 strikes killed 85 Libyans, including many women and children — a fine example of "Western democracy," they sputtered.

The Gadhafi regime collapsed two weeks later. Now survivors of the Majar strike say that their heartbreak — so recently the tool of a desperate ruler — has been forgotten. They'd like compensation for the lost lives and property, they said in interviews this week, but most of all they're demanding answers to why NATO bombed them.

"I just want the truth," said a tearful Elmehemed Agil, who said his mother, sister and sister-in-law were among the dead.

The truth, however, remains elusive in Majar, as well as other sites in Libya where residents claim that NATO airstrikes killed civilians in the final days of Gadhafi's 42-year reign, and NATO has no plans for further investigations, NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said in an e-mail.

NATO stands by its initial assessment that its precision-guided munitions hit four buildings and nine vehicles in what was described as "a military staging area," Lavoie wrote.

In Majar, locals concede that the regime's figure of 85 dead was inflated, saying that number included the wounded. They put the death toll at 35, and produced snapshots of 28 people who they said were victims. Most of the photos were of young men, but there were older women and boys and girls as well.

It's still impossible to separate fact from fiction in Majar, where on a recent day some survivors appeared stilted and rehearsed in their retelling of the events, while others seemed genuine in their sorrow and anger.

"There's a huge problem in general with data in Libya, but in particular with response to civilian casualties caused by NATO, because there's no boots on the ground," said Kristele Younes, who visited the Majar site this week on a fact-finding trip for CIVIC, a Washington-based nonprofit group that focuses on civilian casualties of war.

"We hope they learn from their experience in Afghanistan and make sure they provide compensation and make amends for civilian losses," Younes added, referring to NATO.

It's apparent that support for the old regime runs high in Majar, a tiny community of farmers and small-time merchants nestled adjacent to the city of Zlitan, about 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, the capital. In Majar, not a single revolutionary flag flies, and Gadhafi-era graffiti in green paint still adorns some walls.

Survivors of the airstrike don't deny their evident loyalty to Gadhafi, but say that NATO was wrong in choosing its targets. They said four homes and buildings that belonged to private civilians were bombed, and they picked through the debris to show schoolbooks, hairbrushes other items that suggested family life.

"There were no military targets. Nowhere. Not even nearby," said Attiyeh Jaroud, who owns one of the targeted buildings and said eight of his relatives died.

Nobody checks on the Majar residents these days. Their only visitors since the former regime's tour, they say, were a German photojournalist and a man who identified himself as a photographer from the office of Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, which is now Libya's ruling authority.

Jaroud said that council delegates had met with some wounded residents who paid their own way to hospitals in neighboring Tunisia and were receiving some financial aid from the council. But there's been no talk about a fuller investigation or compensation.

Libyan civilian toll in NATO strike still unclear 10/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 4, 2011 10:22pm]
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