August 1/2, 2011
last edits Nov. 22
bumped Feb. 21, 2012, for app. one-year anniversary
There has been virtually no Libyan Air Force presence over Libya's own territory since the March imposition of a no-fly zone and swift enforcement of it by NATO. Just how much aerial bombardment there was prior to that, and of what kind, is the matter of some deabte.
The pre-no-fly period can be further broken into two main segments. The first is late February, the 16th to about the 25th, when the rebellion is generally understood (incorrectly) to have been strictly protest oriented and peaceful. The other span is after cities had fallen, starting Feb 19 really, but only a solid fact to respond to by the last days. By then, no one could reasonably deny the government's opponents were armed bligerents to be called "rebels" or "freedom fighters," not "protesters."
It's the earlier reports of bombing simple protesters that had the shocking effect on world conscience driving intervention, especially in the skies NATO would seize to bomb Libya. These came in quick, in a rapid burst from Feb. 21-23, and then stopped.
Supporting evidence beyond the flimsy early reports never surfaced. We saw no videos of jets over head, let alone of bombs falling from them. There are no photos of craters in the streets, or of homes or anything flattened by these attacks. Remains of the exploded bombs, or any unexploded ones, never surfaced. No victims among the hundreds claimed have ever been shown or named.
The only evidence is as follows:
Videos from Labraq Airport:
Der Spiegel reported on Feb. 26 about "the first solid proof that the dictator's regime had bombed his own people." This they cited an activist's "shaky" videos of the Feb 18-20 battle for Labraq airport, near al Baida. Among other things, this footage was said to show "a Libyan fighter jet roaring over al-Baida and dropping a bomb not far from the airport," itself not clearly against protesters, but there was also "a helicopter shooting into the mass of people."
The video was said, by Der Spiegel, to have been posted all over the Internet, but as I said there, I cannot find it now, nor any other allusion to it. It seems likely this claim of widespread dissemination - or the content of said videos - was just a miscommunication.
Orders to Bomb Benghazi
The most high-value moment that really made an impression on the world community, and shaped the coming "no-fly zone," was when pilots defected to the rebel side and claimed they were ordered to bomb innocent people. It happened twice in a three day span.
As I've written about elsewhere, two Libyan pilots in their single-seater Mirage jets defected and landed on Malta February 21. They didn't just land quietly either, but swooped around in an air-show manner to draw attention prior to landing, a witness tells me (see the link). They claimed they'd been ordered, at least as Reuters put it, citing Maltese officials, "ordered to bomb anti-government protesters in Libya's second largest city of Benghazi."
Benghazi had just the day before fallen under rebel control, in a military sense. So even if the order was true, it's not obvious why the government would be interested in killing those still only protesting, rather than the heavily armed and ruthless gangs declaring war on the government.
But we don't know for sure the order, or even a more legitimate version of it, was ever truly given. We have only the word of those two pilots. They remain unnamed, but were both reportedly high-ranking colonels, not unlike their fellow Air Force colonel Abdullah Gehani, arrested by the Libyan government a couple of weeks earlier on suspicion of helping set up some kind of overthrow with French involvement (see here).
The defecting colonels also seemed to be - possibly - escorting two helicopters ferrying undocumented, mysterious Frenchmen who arrived on Malta just before them. One set of craft escaping from Benghazi without clearance, the others allegedly sent to Benghazi but veering off without clearance, both meeting up on Malta. Hmmm...
Strange as it this alleged order was, two days later came confirmation of the charge. Two more Libyan air force pilots ejected from and ditched their two-seater SU-22 jet near Ajdabiya. They landed and surrendered to the rebels, claiming they too were ordered to bomb Benghazi but just couldn't follow through. News 24, Libya pilot rejects orders, crashes plane:
Tripoli - A fighter pilot disobeyed orders on Wednesday to bomb the opposition stronghold of Benghazi and ditched his plane after he and his co-pilot ejected, a Libyan newspaper reported on its website.On the co-pilot, there is a variant story where the pilot refused and al-Kadhafi (Gaddafi - of the ruler's tribe) pulled a gun on him to continue, but he ejected anyway, the rat had to follow suit, and was then arrested and put in prison. See comments below for more details.
The Russian-made Sukhoi 22 crashed near Ajdabiya, 160km west of the city which has fallen to anti-regime protesters, a military source said, quoted in Quryna newspaper.
"Pilot Abdessalam Attiyah al-Abdali and co-pilot Ali Omar al-Kadhafi ejected with parachutes after refusing orders to bomb the city of Benghazi."
So, to summarize: three jets were allegedly sent to the rebel capitol to kill protesters only. Four pilots, two missions, all aborted by the pilots, none carried out. Both the puny alleged attempts and the near-universal rejection of them reflected poorly on the regime, whose orders no one seemed to follow anymore. And their 0% success rate might explain why they stopped allegedly trying to bomb Benghazi just three days after it fell.
Ammunitions Depots, Not Protesters
Successful air-strikes in rebel-held areas were nonetheless implied in a February 22 interview with Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi. The leader's son told Christiane Amanpour that the military had not attacked Libya civilians. "Show me a single attack, show me a single bomb. The Libyan air force destroyed just the ammunition sites. That's it." he said." [source]
Again, no one has shown him or anyone the evidence that any bombs were dropped on protesters as opposed to raid-worthy ammo dumps and possibly other fully military targets the "protesters" had already stolen.
Aerial Bombing of Tripoli Neighborhoods
While the government failed to bomb actual enemy fighters or civilians in the east, there were contemporaneous claims of successful attacks on their own capitol city to snuff out the relatively small violent protests that had started there. At first, I thought it came down to a single bold claim by one Adel Mohamed Saleh, a "political activist", to al Jazeera. It was translated and reported by Reuters, filed 1:43 PM EST (6:43 GMT).
What we are witnessing today is unimaginable. Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead. Our people are dying. It is the policy of scorched earth. Every 20 minutes they are bombing. It is continuing, it is continuing. Anyone who moves, even if they are in their car they will hit you."There was no independent verification of the report," Reuters noted, and in fact the evidence suggests he didn't witness any of that at all. Another message of the day, via Twitter (See here and/or here), said:
sultanalgassemi: Al Jazeera breaking Multiple reports confirm that military airplanes are bombing protesters in Tripoli.Multiple reports? Indeed. Another Tripoli witness came out in support of the activist Saleh who spoke to al Jazeera. This time it came in via al Jazeera, from "Soula al-Balaazi, who said he was an opposition activist." As Reuters again translated, filed actually before the other report (5:11 PM GMT, one hour, 32 minutes before).
The rulers in Libya have cut off most international communications, but Al Jazeera is broadcasting ways that their jammed TV feed can be picked up, other agencies are offering land lines so that Tweets can be passed on to the world.
Military aircraft attacked crowds of anti-government protesters in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Monday, Al Jazeera television said.Again, "no independent verification of the report was immediately available," said Reuters. But a while later there would be, and the second time, that same statement wasn't true. Or were they suggesting these two were not independent reports? One way or another, they probably weren't.
A Libyan man, Soula al-Balaazi, who said he was an opposition activist, told the network by telephone that Libyan air force warplanes had bombed "some locations in Tripoli". He said he was talking from a suburb of Tripoli.
A Version by Sea
Possibly related is a similar accusation of insane naval bombardment of Tripoli on the 21st. This time, it was an activist, named Salem Gnan, "a London-based spokesman for the National Front for the Salvation of Libya," speaking to the UK Guardian (I presume) and reported at 5:07 PM GMT - four minutes before al-Balaazi and 96 minutes before Mr. Saleh.
Gnan said eyewitnesses in Tripoli told him the navy ships were firing into one part of the capital, on the outskirts. "Many people have been killed," he said, and added that "[Gaddafi's] plan is to use absolutely everything he can to stop what is happening." But there's no mention from these witnesses of jets - which Gaddafi had - dropping anything. (See here for more on Mr. Gnan and theNFSL - he would also be the only source to allege bombing - by planes - of nearby az Zawiyah on the 24th.)
Both versions of the attack of Feb 21 share multiple deadly explosions across town, but differ on what was happening in the sky. And they all three came in over a span of about an hour and a half. Quite strange. My guess is this: something blew up loudly at about 5:05 PM, heard by many people who would be left wondering what it was. This triggered the first two dramatic guesses what it was. Then Mr. Saleh thought for a bit before he decided to "corroborate" and expand the airplanes version with his over-activist imagination. Thus "multiple reports" can sometimes be born.
What it Meant
If not the evidence, the implications were certainly clear. As Reuters reported (the second one cited here), citing a total genius:
An analyst for London-based consultancy Control Risks said the use of military aircraft on his own people indicated the end was approaching for Muammar Gaddafi. "These really seem to be last, desperate acts. If you're bombing your own capital, it's really hard to see how you can survive, " said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Control Risks' Middle East analyst.Just like ordering protesters shot, running to Venezuela, hiring mercenaries, resorting to mass rape, sniping children dead, and so on. All of these and more fantasies yet strongly hint to to us that Gaddafi is over. It's been said worldwide, daily, for over five months now. Each time, the big "if" was the big problem.
It wasn't a problem for whoever made this image, seen at libya-watanona.com.
Sirte, October 2011, it's rather telling that in the absence of a single damn photograph, rebel supporters had to rely on a 74-year-old painting to get their point across.
Video Evidence from Tripoli
There are videos from Tripoli claiming to show the aftermath of these air attacks. By one of these I've seen, but didn't save and cannot re-locate, we might have been seeing the effects, over a whole neighborhood, of some type of bomb that sprays graffiti, burns out a few buildings, and drags junk across the street. Does such a weapon exist, and is Gaddafi known to have acquired them?
Another with very similar effects is still around. This is given as the rebellious Tajoura district: bombing in tajoora tripoli 22.02.2011.mp4. There is smoke rising in the distance, perhaps from an air-strike.
But this bomb does nothing, on closer inspection, than burn a car and perhaps the insides of a building, sending up a plume of smoke. There's also gunfire from men perhaps guarding a hilltop building in the distance. But a horde of civilians is unafraid of the warning shots into the air, charges the security line, and breaks through as the guards retreat. Others clamber over a wall and join their march towards that green-domed building.
Another interesting video on Youtube is a re-broadcast on Jazeera English, it seems, of the original Saleh phone call (dubbed in English). Here it's specified he's calling from and speaking of the Fashlum neighborhood "where the revolution erupted in the city of Tripoli." He claims that anyone who comes out to help the wounded and dead are shot by pervasive snipers, and that bombing runs were ongoing and aiming for people. Yet the B-roll footage under the audio shows many hundreds of people calmly walking away from somewhere, towards somewhere. A few run in and out of that column, for unclear reasons, but no one is falling dead. There's no mass panic as if suddenly attacked, and there are no jets or anything shown.
Mr. Saleh's rant is worth a listen. He's clearly fired up and shrieking over these things he says happened. And he knew just what was needed to stop them: outside intervention. From the video:
The Libyan people need urgent help! People are crying, death is everywhere! Why is the world silent on these atrocities? Why? This is the question. Why are the Arab countries keeping silent? Why? Within the next few hours, the entire Libyan population can be wiped out if this continues ...On March 4 Sky News had a look at Fashlum and Tajoura and brought back video:
"This is Fashlun, this is the centre of Fashlun," Saif al Islam Gaddafi said.There was no time for science, just journalism, and they failed. Sky was given a chance to visit any site they wanted. They had the reports of which areas (vaguely) were bombed. If they didn't ask to go there, it was their loss. If they did, they saw nothing. Nothing but people loving Seif, even in the neighborhoods supposedly bombed for their insurrection.
"Show me a single attack, one drop, one attack on Tajoura."
I was invited to tour around the suburbs of Tripoli with Col Gaddafi's son.
He insisted there have been no bombings in the capital designed to intimidate anti-government protesters - and prevent them from launching an uprising in the capital.
During our drive we saw no evidence of airstrikes, but this was just a short, unscientific exploration of the city.
Sukhat Chandan was part of a UK delegation that spent longer and was more thorough. Here in late April he speaks with Russia Today about one of the first fact-finding missions. Mr. Chandan started with what he considered the most important claim, vis-a-vis unleashing the bombing of Libya. This was the alleged bombing of "three particular districts in Tripoli: Souk-al-Jouma, Fashlum, Tajoura," all well-stocked with men like the ones we just heard from. "We visited these areas and there was no indication whatsoever of any aerial bombardment," he said, along with many other fascinating findings.
Looking for these scant videos of or about Tripoli bombings in February, I saw a very large number of non-hits roll by. Bombings of Tripoli, flames, flattened buildings, craters, unexploded ordnance, mangled or charred bodies, including baby-sized ones, damaged civilian infrastructure, etc. But these were all after mid-March, and exclusively carried out by NATO, for months now aggressively bombing civilians to protect them from bombing that was itself only rumored to begin with.
Update Aug 14: The Russian Evidence
Goodness, did I completely neglect for weeks now to even mention the Russian evidence against Gaddafi “bombing his own people?” Most, like this scholarly article by Ronda Hauben, cite an alleged Russian satellite-based information proving there were no airstrikes carried out in Libya in these early days
I don’t really like this evidence, especially in its wide re-use as a lazy crutch. The allegation comes from a Russia Today broadcast, re-posted on Youtube here, for example. There are no supporting explanations or even specifics I’m aware of. It was satellite-based, perhaps photo-based. But if so, to prove a negative like “no airstrikes,” you’d need something like constant security camera footage over numerous Libyan military bases, showing no craft leaving, or over all cities, to prove no bombs dropped. Perhaps it was based only on photos looking for damaged buildings or craters in the streets. Or maybe it was something different, like monitoring military communications that would have heard such an order. Again, no specifics were given.
Besides, Saif al-Islam admitted there were air strikes, just at ammunition depots, not on protesters in the street.
When this notion was put before the skeptics at the JREF forum, it didn’t do so well. A reasonable-sounding consensus emerged among people of middling knowledge that this wasn’t possible. That’s not scientific disproof, and the forum has a mixed record, but I can’t see why I should embrace this as a leading point of evidence. If the claim is ever explained better and shown to be proof, or even as inconclusive supporting evidence, so be it. Until then I’ll call it an alleged support for an idea that’s still apparently true and is better illustrated in other ways.
Oct. 17: Grimaldi's View
From a recent interview with 73-year-old Italian filmmaker Fulvio Grimaldi, "the legendary Italian (and former BBC) journalist and filmmaker who shot and smuggled out video footage of the Bloody Sunday massacre from under the noses of the British army almost forty years ago," who's now working on a film about the Libyan war which I very much hope to see finished:
I began by asking Grimaldi how closely his recent trips to Libya matched the impression given in the mainstream media:Oct. 26: Shammam's Explanation
“Not in the least. I personally visited areas around Tripoli where Gheddafi had allegedly “bombed his own people”, but not a bomb had fallen before Nato started its attacks. And this was confirmed by Russian spy satellites. Wherever I went – only in the company of other Fact Finding officials, talking freely to people of my choice, and stopping wherever I wished – I came across multitudes of young and old, men and women, who declared themselves committed to Gheddafi. They are the people who withstood a 7 month war by 27 military powers who had promised a two-week victory, those who defended Tripoli for over a week, those who today hold out in Sirte, Bani Walid, Sabha, Kufra and in 75% of the still free national territory – against genocidal bombings, special Nato troops and mercenaries.”
Mahmoud Shammam, currently the NTC lying sack of an information minister, was back in February just a Libyan dissident giving a fair-minded account of what was happening inside Libya. On the 27th, he spoke with Al Jazeera English's Inside Story, along with French defector and schemer Nouri al Mesmari. At 10:10 he's confronted with Seif assertion that there were no airstrikes against the Libyan people. His response:
They were for the last four days working day and night to clean areas to look - Tripoli looks like a normal city. And we warned against it. We warned the media, and we helped them come from the eastern part, from Salum (?) and they come starting from the eastern part.That was all he could say before veering off. Wherever he's speaking of, one presumes that, unlike in any videos or photos ever presented, one will see ... what? Roads patched over where there was a crater? A house being torn down to sanitize its visible bomb damage? Who did this "cleanup" and why was none of that filmed either? If bombs like those evidenced in videos - ones that trash, burn, and loot - were used, a standard "clean-up" will suffice. But normal bombs like people meant will require heavy work crews to erase the signs of. Shammam blames the cover-up on "public relations firms in Europe, especially in Italy," who were apparently doing this urban reconsructive surgery in complete secrecy within dissident areas of the capitol that we know were flooded with cell phone cameras. Shame on those PR firms who hadn't yet nullified their contracts and defected to the rebel side!