TRIPOLI, Libya — NATO acknowledged yesterday that an errant missile had destroyed a civilian home in the Libyan capital in the early morning, saying it may have killed civilians. It was the alliance’s first such admission in the three-month-long campaign of air strikes against the military forces of Moammar Khadafy.
Reporters taken to the site and a nearby hospital saw at least five corpses, including those of a baby and a child. Libyan officials said at least four more civilians were killed.
The episode was NATO’s second admission of a mistaken strike in two days. On Saturday, it acknowledged inadvertently hitting a rebel convoy of tanks and military vehicles moving around the front near the eastern oil port of Brega. That strike was NATO’s third to accidentally hit rebels.
NATO officials have been talking openly of strains in the Libyan operation. In Washington, the mistaken strikes could bolster congressional criticisms that the operation is too unfocused or depends too much on ill-equipped European allies.
In a statement, NATO said that a bomb intended for a “military missile site’’ had missed and instead “may have caused a number of civilian casualties.’’
“NATO regrets the loss of innocent civilian lives,’’ Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the commander of the Libyan mission, said in the statement, blaming the error on a possible “weapons system failure.’’
NATO said it has conducted 11,500 sorties “with tremendous care to minimize civilian casualties.’’ The Khadafy government has often claimed that the strikes have killed hundreds of civilians. But until yesterday’s bombing, the Khadafy government’s attempts to show journalists proof of civilian casualties have been contradicted by witnesses or lacking in evidence or specific details.
In a statement in response to the attack, the Libyan foreign minister, Abdulati al-Obeidi, called “for all Muslims to initiate a global jihad against the oppressive criminal West.’’ The secular Libyan governor offered no explanation for its uncharacteristic use of Islamist language.
Neighbors who witnessed yesterday’s attack said it took place about 1:15 a.m. Foreign journalists lodged at the Rixos Hotel in the capital heard a large blast rattle windows. A few moments later, an agitated Khadafy spokesman began urgently summoning them for a bus ride to the bombing site, saying that the bodies of civilians were still in the rubble.
When the journalists arrived, a corpse was sitting in an open ambulance. Another body was carried out by emergency workers and neighborhood men pulling away wreckage from a large cinder-block home.
A short while later, at the Tripoli Central Hospital, reporters were shown the bodies of a third adult and a baby, laid alongside the first two. A small child arrived on a stretcher, dead either on arrival or soon after. All the bodies appeared caked in dust from the rubble.
A Khadafy spokesman said the destroyed home housed 15 members of an extended family.
The home sat in a working-class neighborhood called Arada, in the Souq al-Juma area, which is known as a hotbed of opposition to the Khadafy government. As the journalists visited early yesterday, and during another call later, a few neighbors tried without evidence to argue that the Khadafy government had set off the blast or planted the dead bodies. But others who said that they loathed Khadafy confirmed an air strike.
There were no indications of any military facility in the area. Children’s shoes, diapers, a woman’s dress, and kitchen tools lay amid the wreckage early yesterday. The cinder-block house had collapsed into the street, leaving a cement stairway dangling in the air from the remnant of the frame. Several carports on the block had collapsed from the blast, crushing the vehicles within. A neighbor a block away invited reporters into his home to show shattered glass from windows and doors, and said his wife had been taken to the hospital with wounds from the shards.
Both NATO and the Khadafy government have recently stepped up their efforts to accuse each other of recklessly endangering civilians. In a news conference on Saturday in Brussels, NATO officials showed a film clip that appeared to show Khadafy forces firing missiles from inside a mosque into a residential area during fighting in a town in the Nafusa mountains, in Libya’s far west.
Khadafy government officials showed foreign journalists a partially collapsed building of classrooms housing the geography department at a university here, saying that NATO had begun striking campuses in its attempt to terrorize the population. There were no reported casualties.
The campus is near a military facility, but whether the damage was caused by a NATO air strike could not be confirmed.