TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan officials said on Sunday a NATO strike had hit a civilian house in the capital Tripoli, killing nine residents. NATO said it was investigating the claim, which could sow new doubts about its mission.
On another front in the four-month-old battle to force out Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a doctor near Misrata said eight rebel fighters were killed in fighting with government troops, and rockets landed near the city’s port.
Early on Sunday Libyan officials took reporters to a residential area in Tripoli’s Souq al-Juma district where they 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.”
Libyan officials earlier put the death toll at seven but Obeidi said there were nine dead and 18 wounded.
“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 honor,” he told a news conference.
There was no way for reporters to verify that the bodies they were shown came from the building.
“NATO is looking into reports of civilian casualties following NATO air strikes in the early hours of June 19,” the alliance said in a statement from Naples, from where it is running the Libyan operation.
”The incident is said to have occurred in a residential area in northern Tripoli, following a deliberate strike which targeted a missile site operated by pro-Gaddafi forces.
“We take all reports of civilian casualties very seriously and we will continue to look into the facts related to this event,” the alliance said.
“NATO would be sorry if the review of this incident did indicate that it was caused by a NATO weapon.”
If it is proved that Sunday’s deaths were caused by a NATO strike, it would be the first acknowledged incident of its kind in the campaign and could weaken the fragile resolve of some countries in the alliance.
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 most of its backers anticipated 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.
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 neighborhood 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 toward the remains of the building and said: “They (local people) don’t like this ... But they don’t like the regime either.”
On at least one occasion, doubts have emerged about the reliability of Libyan claims of civilian casualties.
In one case, officials presented a wounded child as the victim of an air strike but medical staff passed a note to a foreign journalist saying she was hurt in a road accident.
Rebels from the city of Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, have been trying to push west toward the capital but on Sunday they took heavy casualties when they came under fire from pro-Gaddafi forces.
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.
Highlighting strains in the alliance against Gaddafi, Republicans in the Congress have questioned the legality of U.S. involvement and said they may cut funding for it.
The closest rebel presence to Gaddafi’s main stronghold in Tripoli is in the Western Mountains region. Its eastern edge is about 100 km south of the capital.
A rebel spokesman there, called Abdulrahman, told Reuters pro-Gaddafi forces tried to attack the town of Kikla on Saturday. “But NATO strikes forced them to retreat,” he said.
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 Richard Meares