TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The fear in this Tripoli neighborhood became evident when the rear tire of a boy’s bicycle burst suddenly with a loud bang opposite a building which Libyan officials say was hit by a NATO air strike.
Some residents sprinted off at the sound, followed by a few nervous laughs as people discerned its true cause.
A small crowd had gathered on the narrow street in Arada, a neighborhood in the Souq al-Juma district, known as the scene of protests against the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Reporters during the night saw five bodies taken out of the rubble of the half-built, three-storey building, the roof of which was caved in. Among them were two small children. Officials later said nine people had been killed.
NATO said it was reviewing the incident to establish if one of its weapons had caused the death. Libyan officials said the alliance had deliberately targeted civilians.
“Why is NATO doing this to us? Why?” said Ibrahim Ali, who said he lived on the same street. “NATO is a big problem for the Libyan people. NATO doesn’t have any business here, this is between the Libyan people.”
But there was also little support for the Gaddafi regime.
“This area is not popular with the regime,” said a man who gave his name as Tony. “I think the majority of people here are pleased about the NATO bombing campaign.”
“They don’t like this,” he added, nodding at the remains of the building. “But they don’t like the regime either.”
He expressed his views to a reporter under the gaze of government minders, something most Gaddafi opponents in Tripoli are not prepared to do because they fear reprisals.
As he spoke, his hands were trembling so much he had difficulty lighting his cigarette.
Officials took foreign reporters — whose freedom to move alone is limited — to the scene early on Sunday morning and again in the afternoon.
Debris was scattered across the street and two cars on the other side of the road were dented and their windows smashed. It was unclear how many people lived in the building.
Everyday items littered the ruins of what until the middle of the night had been someone’s home. Clothes, smashed crockery, a child’s small rubber duck and a crushed oven and part of a home telephone lay among the rubble.
The damage here, not least the caved-in roof, seemed to bear the markings of a strike from above.
Although Libyan officials allege the alliance has killed many civilians in the bombing campaign it has waged since March 19 in support of rebels seeking to end Gaddafi’s rule, this incident — if confirmed — would be the first clear evidence of multiple civilian casualties.
“There was intentional and deliberate targeting of the civilian houses,” deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told reporters at the site. “This is another sign of the brutality of the West.”
Unlike other parts of Tripoli, there were no green flags of Gaddafi’s administration flying in Arada, nor were any pictures of the Libyan leader visible.
There were no chants praising the leader, something commonly heard at air strike sites to which government minders usually take reporters.
At the edge of the crowd, Mahmoud Ali said that while people were “tired of Gaddafi,” the incident was a black mark for NATO.
“If NATO hurts the regime, okay,” he said. “But if peaceful people die, it is no good for NATO. No good at all.”
Another man, Ada Bazhani, said he lived one kilometer (half a mile) away from the site and feared for his children’s safety.
“This was a mistake, I do not think it was meant,” he said while surveying the rubble. “But it’s dangerous now to sleep. This is a problem for the people here.”