* Gaddafi’s government says nine dead in air strike
* NATO says cause may have been weapons system failure
* Eight rebel fighters killed in clashes near Misrata
* U.S. defence secretary: Gaddafi will fall eventually
(Updates with NATO statement)
By Nick Carey
TRIPOLI, June 19 (Reuters) - NATO admitted on Sunday that its weapons destroyed a house in Tripoli in which Libyan officials said nine civilians were killed, an incident likely to sow new doubts inside the alliance about its mission in Libya.
The strike on the house was the clearest case yet of NATO bombing causing multiple civilian casualties, and comes at a time when NATO is already under strain from a campaign that is taking more time and resources than its backers had expected.
A NATO statement said that a military missile site was the intended target of the air strikes but that it appeared one of the weapons did not strike that target, which may have caused civilian casualties.
“NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives and takes great care in conducting strikes against a regime determined to use violence against its own citizens,” said Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, commander of NATO’s operations over Libya.
“Although we are still determining the specifics of this event, indications are that a weapons system failure may have caused this incident,” he said.
Early on Sunday Libyan officials took reporters to a residential area in Tripoli’s Souq al-Juma district where the reporters saw several bodies being pulled out of the rubble of a destroyed building.
Later, in a hospital, they were shown the bodies of two children and three adults who, officials said, were among those killed in the strike.
Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi said the NATO strike was a “pathetic attempt .... to break the spirit of the people of Tripoli and allow small numbers of terrorists to cause instability and disorder in the peaceful city”.
“We will never forgive, we will never forget, we are here; on our land, united with our leader, ready for peace and ready for the fight for our freedom and honour,” he told a media conference.
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However, a spokesman for the rebels who have been fighting to end the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, said Gaddafi himself was to blame.
“We are sorry for the loss of civilian life that was caused by air strikes carried out by NATO,” said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the rebel National Transitional Council.
“We hold the Gaddafi regime responsible for having placed its military (installations) near civilian areas,” he said. “So these losses are to be expected.”
NATO has been pounding targets in Libya for months in what it says is an operation to protect civilians who rebelled against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule. The Libyan leader says it is an act of colonial aggression designed to steal oil.
Strains are appearing within NATO member states as the campaign drags on for longer than envisaged and Gaddafi remains in power — even making a show of defiance last week by playing chess with a visiting official.
Sunday marked three months since NATO warplanes went into action over Libya.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he believed NATO should be allowed to stick at its task. “I think this is going to end OK. I think Gaddafi will eventually fall,” he told CNN.
At the scene of the destroyed building on Sunday, clothes, smashed crockery and a rubber duck littered the area.
The building is in a neighbourhood where security forces have in the past few weeks put down anti-Gaddafi protests.
“Why is NATO doing this to us? Why?” asked Ibrahim Ali, who said he lived on the same street as the wrecked building. “NATO is a big problem for the Libyan people. NATO doesn’t have any business here, this is between the Libyan people.”
Another man, who gave his name as Tony, nodded towards the remains of the building and said: “They (local people) don’t like this ... But they don’t like the regime either.”
On another front in the four-month-old battle to force out Gaddafi, rebel fighters took heavy casualties when they came under artillery fire from pro-Gaddafi forces near the city of Misrata.
A doctor at a field hospital near the frontline in Dafniyah, just west of Misrata, said eight fighters had been killed and 36 wounded.
A Reuters reporter at the hospital said he saw a procession of pick-up trucks arriving from the front carrying the wounded and the dead, some covered with blankets.
“Gaddafi’s forces were underground (in trenches). We were patrolling and they ambushed us,” said rebel fighter Mohammed Swelhi, whose friend, Mustafa, was one of two bodies brought in the back of a truck.
On Sunday evening, a Reuters reporter saw three rockets land in Habara residential area near Misrata’s port, sending up clouds of smoke and dust. There was no immediate word on any casualties from the rocket strike. (Additional reporting by Matt Robinson in Misrata, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Maria Golovnina in Benghazi and Washington bureau; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Louise Ireland)