TRIPOLI (AFP) – NATO came under verbal fire again on Saturday from Moamer Kadhafi’s regime, which accused it of killing 15 more people in strikes on civilian sites in the eastern city of Brega, a claim promptly denied by the alliance.
Meanwhile, three powerful explosions struck the eastern Tripoli suburb of Tajura, where a number of military installations are located, and columns of smoke could be seen from the city centre, AFP correspondents said.
It was not immediately known if the blasts were the result of an attack by NATO, which has repeatedly targeted the area in the past.
And in a likely propaganda coup against Kadhafi in football-mad Libya, 17 of the country’s top players, including national goalkeeper Juma Gtat, have defected to rebels battling to oust him, the BBC reported.
“The colonialist crusader Atlantic coalition bombed civilian sites, among them a bakery and a restaurant in Brega, creating 15 martyrs and more than 20 wounded, among them regular clients of those places,” state television said.
The report, which did not say when the attack took place, referred to a NATO “war of extermination” and “crimes against humanity” in Libya.
However, state news agency Jana said the attack was on Saturday and spoke of five more “citizens” killed a day earlier.
Following the Libyan television claim, the NATO spokesman said the alliance “did target buildings in an abandoned area of Brega. These were legitimate military targets that were hit.
“We took a long time to watch the area and make sure. Meticulous planning went into this.”
In its daily operations report, the alliance said that on Friday it had targeted 35 objectives, including military vehicles and installations, around Brega, a key refinery town some 800 kilometres (500 miles) east of Tripoli and 240 kilometres southwest of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
“Once assessed as clear military targets, precision-guided munitions were employed to end the use of this abandoned civilian neighbourhood as a command and control hub to direct attacks against civilians,” NATO said on Friday.
Separately, Operation Unified Protector’s military spokesman Mike Bracken told AFP on Saturday: “We take great care to avoid civilian casualties, and even at the last minute we will divert weapons to ensure civilians are not injured.”
Earlier this week, after NATO admitted misfires that Tripoli says caused several deaths, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called for a suspension in the campaign in the latest sign of dissent within NATO.
“I believe an immediate humanitarian suspension of hostilities is required in order to create effective humanitarian corridors,” while negotiations should also continue on a more formal ceasefire and peace talks, he said.
Alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said more civilians would die if operations were not maintained under a UN mandate to protect Libyans from the exactions of the government of veteran leader Moamer Kadhafi.
“NATO will continue this mission because if we stop, countless more civilians could lose their lives,” Rasmussen said in a video statement on the NATO website.
The latest war of words comes a day after lawmakers dealt a symbolic rebuke to President Barack Obama over US participation in the NATO-led UN-mandated campaign against Kadhafi.
The House of Representatives rejected a resolution that would have given congressional authorisation to Obama’s decision to use military force.
The House later beat back an effort to cut funding for direct US strikes on Kadhafi’s forces, defeating a resolution that would have denied money to drone attacks and bombings while backing US operations in support of NATO-led efforts for one year.
In the latest apparent defections, three Libyan national football team players and the coach of Tripoli’s top club Al-Ahly, Adel bin Issa, also switched their allegiance to the rebels, the BBC said.
National goalkeeper Gtat, reportedly speaking from rebel-held mountains in the west, said “there is no proper infrastructure… there is no health care… This is because of the bad regime we had for the last 42 years.
“I tell him (Kadhafi), leave us alone and leave the Libyan people (to) enjoy their life in new Libya, Libya for freedom.”
Issa said he wanted “to send a message that Libya should be unified and free,” adding that he hoped “to wake up one morning to find that Kadhafi is no longer there.”