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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Details on the May 13 NATO Strike at Brega

May 15/16 2011

On Friday, May 13, NATO struck again in Libya, repeatedly as usual, in their effort to protect civilians. One of the bombing targets was in Brega, and, according to the Libyan government, killed nothing but civilians - nine of them (but reported as 11 - see below) - from a group of Libyan imams, or Muslim religious leaders.

I didn't manage yet to track down NATO's full cookie-cutter dead-civilians statement anywhere, but was able to piece this together from a few sources:
A command and control bunker was struck in Brega early Friday morning, as the structure was being used by the Qadhafi regime to coordinate strikes against the Libyan civilian population. [...] The building in Brega was clearly identified as a command centre. [...] We are aware of allegations of civilian casualties in connection to this strike, and although we cannot independently confirm the validity of the claim, we regret any loss of life by innocent civilians when they occur.

Pakistani paper Dawn reports:
Funerals for the 11 imams reportedly killed when they gathered early Friday in the eastern city of Brega were to be held later on Saturday, officials said.

At least 50 other people were wounded in the Nato aerial attack, with five of them in critical condition, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told a news conference on Friday in Tripoli.
The Guardian's Michael Chulov said:
The Libyan government has shown video [...] The gruesome images showed 11 dead imams and 45 wounded Muslim holy men – five of them in a coma – according to Libyan government officials speaking in the courtyard of a Tripoli mosque where Islamic elders and Christian Coptic priests had gathered to condemn the attack.
In another related piece for the Guardian, Chulov reports:
It was impossible to corroborate the government claims. However, funerals for the victims have been arranged across the country on Saturday and Christian priests joined Muslim leaders in condemning the deaths at a central Tripoli mosque late on Friday.
If the carnage proved to be the result of a Nato strike, it would be the most serious setback to the three-month [sic] air campaign, whose stated mission is to safeguard civilians from attacks by loyalists of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The Libyan leader delivered a brief audio address on Friday night to rebut rumours he had been injured in an air strike and to condemn the "cowardly crusader aggressor attack" in Brega.
Their mission was reportedly to ask the rebels of Cyrenaica to lay down their arms or at least consider negotiations with the Gaddafi regime. According to Chulov:
The group had reportedly travelled to Brega from across the war-torn country. They had appeared on state-run television on Thursday and, according to government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, planned to move to the nearby city of Ajdabiya on Friday and then to Benghazi.
But as it happened, they spent the hours between those events in a "command and control bunker" which NATO was forced to bomb during their brief stay. The Saudi Gazette gives the most detail of the government press conference later in the day, including another Libyan Imam's dramatic and unwise call for mammoth revenge.
The imams’ “aim was to call upon their brothers and sisters in the eastern part of the country and everywehere to join them in the call of peace and dialogue in Libya,” he said, referring to rebels seeking strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster and who are predominantly based in the east. “But in the early hours they were attacked by the barbaric, inhumane NATO - they were hit in their sleep,” he said.

Later in the news conference an imam identified as Nureddin Al-Mijrah called for 1,000 people from a list of Western and Gulf countries to be killed for each of the dead imams. “This will have a very bad consequence as it will push us towards fighting back in all Islam against those who are humiliating our religion and our nation,” he said of the Brega strike. We “call upon the Muslims all around the world to take revenge for our brothers who died today. For every man we should take down one thousand men,” he said.

Ibrahim said before Mijrah’s remarks that his views were his own and not those of the government, but he was still part of the speaker lineup at the government-organized news conference.
Until and if this threat becomes a reality, the main issue here is the Friday morning attack itself. It seems the imams were not sleeping, as Ibrahim said, but had just woken up.

Reuters Africa:
Libyan state television [...] said the attack occurred at dawn and most of the victims were clerics who had gathered for a religious ceremony.
NATO strikes do usually happen late at night when people are asleep. This one was a bit later, and caught them just as they had woken up and gathered together for the spiritual exercise needed for their  just-announced march to Ajdabiya.

John F. Burns for the New York Times covered the funeral in Tripoli for nine victims on Saturday, the 14th. (Islam requires burial, generally, within 24 hours of death). He manages to sow plenty of doubt and confusion. To start with:
Earlier in the week, the propaganda apparatus had been focused on a gathering of tribal leaders in support of Colonel Qaddafi. Now, the deaths of the imams appeared to lay the ground for marshaling an even wider body of opinion. Calling the NATO attackers “crusaders” set the tone, as did the assertion, common in all the bombings, that NATO was lying when it identified the Brega target as a “command-and-control” center for pro-Qaddafi forces.
Burns insinuates that it's all part of Gaddafi's "propaganda apparatus." He also notes, as one clue of something amiss. the funeral itself. This "seemed strangely flat" and "underwhelming," with "barely 500 people" in attendance. But even from this small pool, the reporter got some print-worthy "contradictions and uncertainties that flowed from official accounts, and those given by the mourners." One apparently official witness said he was there when it happened, and the victims were Imams, but he wasn't visibly injured himself. Further:
According to officials, the nine coffins, with bodies wrapped in the green of Islam, were those of the dead Muslim clerics. But some mourners offered differing counts. Two men whispered that their uncles, among those being buried, were soldiers, and one of those said the man concerned had been dead for weeks. Another identified one of the dead as a driver.
That sounds less than convincing, but it will surely suffice for most Americans. The whole thing was a fake set-up using already dead bodies to discredit NATO! It's happened before!

- As we've seen, their mission to Brega and beyond was mentioned by the government, with video support, the day before the strike.
- The bodies were shown on TV, in situ, near damage from an acknowledged NATO attack fitting the entourage's publicized schedule.
- Numerous other clerics have been convinced of their comrades' demise. Surely if the identities were made up, someone will find that out, and if any of them turns up real but alive, the same can be expected. I predict neither will happen, and these nine people will remain absent from the Earth when previously they walked it.

Reuters Africa:
Libyan state television showed footage on Friday of at least nine bodies with multiple wounds, wrapped in blankets.
"At least nine" suggests nine by the journalist's count, but said to be eleven, so maybe he missed some.... That nine were later buried suggests the original figure was some sort of mistake and nine were in fact killed. As the Saudi Gazette pointed out:
Earlier, state television put the toll from the Brega strike at 16 “civilians” killed, citing a military source.
"Quotes" probably not in the original. Eleven (erred) plus five in a coma (erroneously reported as dead) could explain that. Fog of war might just be worse than usual under sustained bombardment of the 3 Cs.

Diaa Hadid and Sarah el-Deeb, Associated Press
State-run Libyan television showed a concrete building in Brega with its facade blown off. Nearby houses also were damaged, and some of them were tipped off foundations. Upper stories were blown off other nearby buildings.

The bodies of many of the dead imams were laid out in two rows. Most had visible wounds, often to the head but also to legs and other extremities. Some were covered with dust scattered by the explosions.
This devastation can be seen here on Youtube, in a long 18-minute segment right from Libyan TV (JANA, I think):

Indeed, only nine bodies are shown. Two remain covered, but one is briefly bared to show a convincing mess of a damaged head. The rest look injured but fully intact. One is wearing pretty un-Islamic dress - black shorts, and perhaps thong underwear, and a black t-shirt saying in English "FLV Emirates" (interesting, considering the early emirate in Dernah and YouTube's FLV file format for the videos with which the rebels partly announced their "birth of a nation.") . For what it's worth. The rest look fairly young, neither dressed nor bearded like we usually imagine Imams looking (that's more like the guy in the wheelchair off to the side, pointing and explaining).

A slightly different and probably better informed version here at Mathaba:
A cleric who identified himself as a witness gave a different account and said that nine were killed. He said they were a group of 16 men sent by the country’s Islamic affairs department to Brega to demonstrate that the port city was firmly in the hands of government forces as an act of defiance.

“We wanted to show that Brega wasn’t in rebel hands,” the cleric said. “We wanted to prove it by praying in the mosque on Friday. But we didn’t make it — my friends were killed in the strike,” he said at the funeral in Tripoli’s main Shat al-Hanshir cemetery.

The cleric said three strikes hit their guest house and formed a crater he estimated to be 16 feet deep and 50 feet wide.

“It leveled the area,” he said. “We identified our friends from their clothing,” said the cleric.
(Most of these are identifiable by face as well, to be fair). I will come back to this possible disconnect between nine "men sent by the country’s Islamic affairs department" for a Brega demonstration vs. nine imams on their way to Ajdabiya. For the moment, my guess is the clergymen were on such a mission, with an early Friday demo in Brega before pushing off to the northeast. But it almost seems that none of those killed were the actual imams. Except, as the same Mathaba article says, the dead include "a leading cleric named Sheik Omar Ibrahim."

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