NATO and Libyan Rebels Struggle to Communicate

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As NATO gets further bogged down in Libya, Steven Sotloff examines for TIME its worsening relationship with Libya’s rebel fighters. Some rebels contend that lack of communication between their forces and NATO have resulted in more deaths as expected air counterattacks never materialize or errant strikes result in rebel deaths. If these problems are not corrected, one rebel leader said, the Libyan people will soon be burning pictures of NATO leaders next to those of Gaddafi’s. Sotloff writes from the besieged city of Misratah:

The rebels never know when NATO will fly in to their rescue. During a fierce offensive by Gaddafi’s forces between June 7 and June 10, one that left more than 70 rebel dead under a barrage of long-range Grad rockets, the soldiers of “Free Libya” waited for a NATO counterattack that never materialized. The coalition’s failure to defend the rebels angered their commanders. “NATO is to be blamed for Friday’s deaths,” Misratah’s military council spokesman Ibrahim Bayt al-Mal told journalists. The alliance’s officials have responded to such comments in the past by noting that their mandate extends only to protecting civilians, not toppling Gaddafi.

The lack of direct communication between the two sides has left NATO unable to differentiate between Gaddafi’s forces and rebel fighters, leading to friendly fire incidents in which rebels were attacked. In April, two errant bombings in the rebel-held areas killed at least 20. Last Saturday, NATO mistakenly targeted a rebel convoy in which at least four were injured. The coalition immediately released a statement explaining that “a particularly complex and fluid battle scenario” led it to believe that the rebel column was a Gaddafi battalion because his forces “had recently been operating” in the area. All three attacks occurred in the area between the cities of Ajdabiyah and Brega in eastern Libya.

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