TRIPOLI, Libya — NATO’s seven-month air campaign in Libya, hailed by the alliance and many Libyans for blunting a lethal crackdown by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and helping to push him from power, came with an unrecognized toll: scores of civilian casualties the alliance has long refused to acknowledge or investigate.
By NATO’s telling during the war, and in statements since sorties ended on Oct. 31, the alliance-led operation was nearly flawless — a model air war that used high technology, meticulous planning and restraint to protect civilians from Colonel Qaddafi’s troops, which was the alliance’s mandate.
“We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties,” the secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said in November.
But an on-the-ground examination by The New York Times of airstrike sites across Libya — including interviews with survivors, doctors and witnesses, and the collection of munitions remnants, medical reports, death certificates and photographs — found credible accounts of dozens of civilians killed by NATO in many distinct attacks. The victims, including at least 29 women or children, often had been asleep in homes when the ordnance hit.
In all, at least 40 civilians, and perhaps more than 70, were killed by NATO at these sites, available evidence suggests. While that total is not high compared with other conflicts in which Western powers have relied heavily on air power, and less than the exaggerated accounts circulated by the Qaddafi government, it is also not a complete accounting. Survivors and doctors working for the anti-Qaddafi interim authorities point to dozens more civilians wounded in these and other strikes, and they referred reporters to other sites where civilian casualties were suspected.
Two weeks after being provided a 27-page memorandum from The Times containing extensive details of nine separate attacks in which evidence indicated that allied planes had killed or wounded unintended victims, NATO modified its stance.
“From what you have gathered on the ground, it appears that innocent civilians may have been killed or injured, despite all the care and precision,” said Oana Lungescu, a spokeswoman for NATO headquarters in Brussels. “We deeply regret any loss of life.”
She added that NATO was in regular contact with the new Libyan government and that “we stand ready to work with the Libyan authorities to do what they feel is right.”
NATO, however, deferred the responsibility of initiating any inquiry to Libya’s interim authorities, whose survival and climb to power were made possible largely by the airstrike campaign. So far, Libyan leaders have expressed no interest in examining NATO’s mistakes.
The failure to thoroughly assess the civilian toll reduces the chances that allied forces, which are relying ever more heavily on air power rather than risking ground troops in overseas conflicts, will examine their Libyan experience to minimize collateral deaths elsewhere. Allied commanders have been ordered to submit a lessons-learned report to NATO headquarters in February. NATO’s incuriosity about the many lethal accidents raises questions about how thorough that review will be.
NATO’s experience in Libya also reveals an attitude that initially prevailed in Afghanistan. There, NATO forces, led by the United States, tightened the rules of engagement for airstrikes and insisted on better targeting to reduce civilian deaths only after repeatedly ignoring or disputing accounts of airstrikes that left many civilians dead.
In Libya, NATO’s inattention to its unintended victims has also left many wounded civilians with little aid in the aftermath of the country’s still-chaotic change in leadership.
These victims include a boy blasted by debris in his face and right eye, a woman whose left leg was amputated, another whose foot and leg wounds left her disabled, a North Korean doctor whose left foot was crushed and his wife, who suffered a fractured skull.
The Times’s investigation included visits to more than 25 sites, including in Tripoli, Surman, Mizdah, Zlitan, Ga’a, Majer, Ajdabiya, Misurata, Surt, Brega and Sabratha and near Benghazi. More than 150 targets — bunkers, buildings or vehicles — were hit at these places.
NATO warplanes flew thousands of sorties that dropped 7,700 bombs or missiles; because The Times did not examine sites in several cities and towns where the air campaign was active, the casualty estimate could be low.
There are indications that the alliance took many steps to avoid harming civilians, and often did not damage civilian infrastructure useful to Colonel Qaddafi’s military. Elements of two American-led air campaigns in Iraq, in 1991 and 2003, appear to have been avoided, including attacks on electrical grids.
Such steps spared civilians certain hardships and risks that accompanied previous Western air-to-ground operations. NATO also said that allied forces did not use cluster munitions or ordnance containing depleted uranium, both of which pose health and environmental risks, in Libya at any time.
The alliance’s fixed-wing aircraft dropped only laser- or satellite-guided weapons, said Col. Gregory Julian, a NATO spokesman; no so-called dumb bombs were used.
While the overwhelming preponderance of strikes seemed to have hit their targets without killing noncombatants, many factors contributed to a run of fatal mistakes. These included a technically faulty bomb, poor or dated intelligence and the near absence of experienced military personnel on the ground who could help direct airstrikes.
The alliance’s apparent presumption that residences thought to harbor pro-Qaddafi forces were not occupied by civilians repeatedly proved mistaken, the evidence suggests, posing a reminder to advocates of air power that no war is cost- or error-free.
The investigation also found significant damage to civilian infrastructure from certain attacks for which a rationale was not evident or risks to civilians were clear. These included strikes on warehouses that current anti-Qaddafi guards said contained only food, or near businesses or homes that were destroyed, including an attack on a munitions bunker beside a neighborhood that caused a large secondary explosion, scattering warheads and toxic rocket fuel.
NATO has also not yet provided data to Libyans on the locations or types of unexploded ordnance from its strikes. At least two large weapons were present at sites visited by The Times. “This information is urgently needed,” said Dr. Ali Yahwya, chief surgeon at the Zlitan hospital.
Moreover, the scouring of one strike site found remnants of NATO munitions in a ruined building that an alliance spokesman explicitly said NATO did not attack.
That mistake — a pair of strikes — killed 12 anti-Qaddafi fighters and nearly killed a civilian ambulance crew aiding wounded men. It underscored NATO’s sometimes tenuous grasp of battle lines and raised questions about the forthrightness and accuracy of the alliance’s public-relations campaign.
The second strike pointed to a tactic that survivors at several sites recounted: warplanes restriking targets minutes after a first attack, a practice that imperiled, and sometimes killed, civilians rushing to the wounded.
Pressed about the dangers posed to noncombatants by such attacks, NATO said it would reconsider the tactic’s rationale in its internal campaign review. “That’s a valid point to take into consideration in future operations,” Colonel Julian said.
That statement is a shift in the alliance’s stance. NATO’s response to allegations of mistaken attacks had long been carefully worded denials and insistence that its operations were devised and supervised with exceptional care. Faced with credible allegations that it killed civilians, the alliance said it had neither the capacity for nor intention of investigating and often repeated that disputed strikes were sound.
The alliance maintained this position even after two independent Western organizations — Human Rights Watch and the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or Civic — met privately with NATO officials and shared field research about mistakes, including, in some cases, victims’ names and the dates and locations where they died.
Organizations researching civilian deaths in Libya said that the alliance’s resistance to making itself accountable and acknowledging mistakes amounted to poor public policy. “It’s crystal clear that civilians died in NATO strikes,” said Fred Abrahams, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But this whole campaign is shrouded by an atmosphere of impunity” and by NATO’s and the Libyan authorities’ mutually congratulatory statements.
Mr. Abrahams added that the matter went beyond the need to assist civilians harmed by airstrikes, though he said that was important. At issue, he said, was “who is going to lose their lives in the next campaign because these errors and mistakes went unexamined, and no one learned from them?”
Human Rights Watch and Civic also noted that the alliance’s stance on civilian casualties it caused in Libya was at odds with its practices for so-called collateral damage in Afghanistan. There, public anger and political tension over fatal mistakes led NATO to adopt policies for investigating actions that caused civilian harm, including guidelines for expressing condolences and making small payments to victims or their families.
“You would think, and I did think, that all of the lessons learned from Afghanistan would have been transferred to Libya,” said Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of Civic, which helped NATO devise its practices for Afghanistan. “But many of them didn’t.”
When foreign militaries began attacking Libya’s loyalists on March 19, the United States military, more experienced than NATO at directing large operations, coordinated the campaign. On March 31, the Americans transferred command to NATO.
Seven months later, the alliance had destroyed more than 5,900 military targets by means of roughly 9,700 strike sorties, according to its data, helping to dismantle the pro-Qaddafi military and militias. Warplanes from France, Britain, the United States, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Canada dropped ordnance. Two non-NATO nations, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, participated on a small scale.
France carried out about a third of all strike sorties, Britain 21 percent and the United States 19 percent, according to data from each nation.
The attacks fell under two broad categories. So-called deliberate strikes were directed against fixed targets, like buildings or air-defense systems. These targets were selected and assigned to pilots before aircraft took off.
Deliberate strikes were planned to minimize risks to civilians, NATO said. In Naples, Italy, intelligence analysts and targeting specialists vetted proposed targets and compiled lists, which were sent to an operations center near Bologna, where targets were matched to specific aircraft and weapons.
For some targets, like command bunkers, NATO said, it conducted long periods of surveillance first. Drones or other aircraft chronicled the daily routines at the sites, known as “patterns of life,” until commanders felt confident that each target was valid.
Other considerations then came into play. Targeting specialists chose, for example, the angle of attack and time of day thought to pose the least risk to civilians. They would also consider questions of ordnance. These included the size and type of bomb, and its fuze.
Some fuzes briefly delay detonation of a bomb’s high-explosive charge. This can allow ordnance to penetrate concrete and explode in an underground tunnel or bunker, or, alternately, to burrow into sand before exploding — reducing the blast wave, shrapnel and risk to people and property nearby.
(NATO could also choose inert bombs, made of concrete, that can collapse buildings or shatter tanks with kinetic energy rather than an explosion. NATO said such weapons were used fewer than 10 times in the war.)
Many early strikes were planned missions. But about two-thirds of all strikes, and most of the attacks late in the war, were another sort: dynamic strikes.
Dynamic strikes were against targets of opportunity. Crews on aerial patrols would spot or be told of a potential target, like suspected military vehicles. Then, if cleared by controllers in Awacs aircraft, they would attack.
NATO said dynamic missions, too, were guided by practices meant to limit risks. On Oct. 24, Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of Canada, the operation’s commander, described a philosophy beyond careful target vetting or using only guided weapons: restraint. “Only when we had a clear shot would we take it,” he said.
Colonel Julian, the spokesman, said there were hundreds of instances when pilots could have released ordnance but because of concerns for civilians they held fire. Col. Alain Pelletier, commander of seven Canadian CF-18 fighters that flew 946 strike sorties, said Canada installed a special computer software modification in its planes that allowed pilots to assess the likely blast radius around an intended target and to call off strikes if the technology warned they posed too great a risk to civilians.
Colonel Julian also said that NATO broadcast radio messages and that it dropped millions of leaflets to warn Libyans to stay away from likely military targets, a practice Libyan citizens across much of the country confirmed.
A Blow to the Rebels
Civilians were killed by NATO within days of the alliance’s intervention, the available evidence shows, beginning with one of the uglier mistakes of the air war: the pummeling of a secret rebel armored convoy that was advancing through the desert toward the Qaddafi forces’ eastern front lines.
Having survived the first wave of air-to-ground attacks, the loyalists were taking steps to avoid attracting NATO bombs. They moved in smaller formations and sometimes set aside armored vehicles in favor of pickup trucks resembling those that rebels drove. Pilots suddenly had fewer targets.
On April 7, as the rebel armor lined up on a hill about 20 miles from Brega, NATO aircraft struck. In a series of attacks, laser-guided bombs stopped the formation, destroyed the rebels’ armor and scattered the anti-Qaddafi fighters, killing several of them, survivors said.
The attack continued as civilians, including ambulance crews, tried to converge on the craters and flames to aid the wounded. Three shepherds were among them.
As the shepherds approached over the sand, a bomb slammed in again, said one of them, Abdul Rahman Ali Suleiman Sudani. The blast knocked them over, he said. His two cousins were hit.
One, he said, was cut in half; the other had a gaping chest wound. Both died. Mr. Sudani and other relatives returned to the wreckage later and retrieved the remains for burial in Kufra. The men had died, he said, trying to help.
“We called their families in Sudan and told them, ‘Your sons, they have passed away,’ ” he said.
Colonel Julian declined to discuss this episode but said that each time NATO aircraft returned to strike again was a distinct event and a distinct decision, and that it was not a general practice for NATO to “double tap” its targets.
This practice was reported several times by survivors at separate attacks and cited to explain why some civilians opted not to help at strike sites or bolted in fear soon after they did.
Colonel Julian said the tactic was likely to be included in NATO’s internal review of the air campaign.
An Errant Strike
NATO’s planning or restraint did not protect the family of Ali Mukhar al-Gharari when his home was shattered in June by a phenomenon as old as air-to-ground war: errant ordnance.
A retiree in Tripoli, Mr. Gharari owned a three-story house he shared with his adult children and their families. Late on June 19 a bomb struck it squarely, collapsing the front side. The rubble buried a courtyard apartment, the family said, where Karima, Mr. Gharari’s adult daughter, lived with her husband and two children, Jomana, 2, and Khaled, 7 months.
All four were killed, as was another of Mr. Gharari’s adult children, Faruj, who was blasted from his second-floor bed to the rubble below, two of his brothers said. Eight other family members were wounded, one seriously.
The Qaddafi government, given to exaggeration, claimed that nine civilians died in the airstrike, including a rescue worker electrocuted while clearing rubble. These deaths have not been independently corroborated. There has been no dispute about the Gharari deaths.
Initially, NATO almost acknowledged its mistake. “A military missile site was the intended target,” an alliance statement said soon after. “There may have been a weapons system failure which may have caused a number of civilian casualties.”
Then it backtracked. Kristele Younes, director of field operations for Civic, the victims’ group, examined the site and delivered her findings to NATO. She met a cold response. “They said, ‘We have no confirmed reports of civilian casualties,’ ” Ms. Younes said.
The reason, she said, was that the alliance had created its own definition for “confirmed”: only a death that NATO itself investigated and corroborated could be called confirmed. But because the alliance declined to investigate allegations, its casualty tally by definition could not budge — from zero.
“The position was absurd,” Ms. Younes said. “But they made it very clear: there was no appetite within NATO to look at these incidents.”
The position left the Gharari family disoriented, and in social jeopardy. Another of Mr. Gharari’s sons, Mohammed, said the family supported the revolution. But since NATO’s attack, other Libyans have labeled the family pro-Qaddafi. If NATO attacked the Ghararis’ home, the street logic went, the alliance must have had a reason.
Mohammed al-Gharari said he would accept an apology from NATO. He said he could even accept the mistake. “If this was an error from their control room, I will not say anything harsh, because that was our destiny,” he said.
But he asked that NATO lift the dishonor from the family and set the record straight. “NATO should tell the truth,” he said. “They should tell what happened, so everyone knows our family is innocent.”
A ‘Horrible Mistake’
In the hours before his wife and two of their sons were killed, on Aug. 4, Mustafa Naji al-Morabit thought he had taken adequate precautions.
When Colonel Qaddafi’s officers began meeting at a home next door in Zlitan, he moved his family. That was in July. The adjacent property, Mr. Morabit and his neighbors said, was owned by a loyalist doctor who hosted commanders who organized the local front.
About a month later, as rebels pressed near, the officers fled, Mr. Morabit said. He and his family returned home on Aug. 2, assuming that the danger had passed.
Calamity struck two days later. A bomb roared down in the early morning quiet and slammed into their concrete home, causing its front to buckle.
Mr. Morabit’s wife, Eptisam Ali al-Barbar, died of a crushed skull. Two of their three sons — Mohammed, 6, and Moataz, 3 — were killed, too. Three toes on the left foot of Fatima Umar Mansour, Mr. Morabit’s mother, were severed. Her lower left leg was snapped.
“We were just in our homes at night,” she said, showing the swollen leg.
The destruction of their home showed that even with careful standards for target selection, mistakes occurred. Not only did NATO hit the wrong building, survivors and neighbors said, but it also hit it more than two days late.
Mr. Morabit added a sorrowful detail. He suspected that the bomb was made of concrete; there seemed to be no fire or explosion when it struck, he said. NATO may have tried to minimize damage, he added, but the would-be benefits of its caution were lost. “I want to know why,” he said. “NATO said they are so organized, that they are specialists. So why? Why this horrible mistake?”
It is not clear whether the mistake was made by the pilot or those who selected the target. NATO declined to answer questions about the strike.
On Aug. 8, four days after destroying the Morabit home, NATO hit buildings occupied by civilians again, this time in Majer, according to survivors, doctors and independent investigators. The strikes were NATO’s bloodiest known accidents in the war.
The attack began with a series of 500-pound laser-guided bombs, called GBU-12s, ordnance remnants suggest. The first house, owned by Ali Hamid Gafez, 61, was crowded with Mr. Gafez’s relatives, who had been dislocated by the war, he and his neighbors said.
The bomb destroyed the second floor and much of the first. Five women and seven children were killed; several more people were wounded, including Mr. Gafez’s wife, whose her lower left leg had to be amputated, the doctor who performed the procedure said.
Minutes later, NATO aircraft attacked two buildings in a second compound, owned by brothers in the Jarud family. Four people were killed, the family said.
Several minutes after the first strikes, as neighbors rushed to dig for victims, another bomb struck. The blast killed 18 civilians, both families said.
The death toll has been a source of confusion. The Qaddafi government said 85 civilians died. That claim does not seem to be credible. With the Qaddafi propaganda machine now gone, an official list of dead, issued by the new government, includes 35 victims, among them the late-term fetus of a fatally wounded woman the Gafez family said went into labor as she died.
The Zlitan hospital confirmed 34 deaths. Five doctors there also told of treating dozens of wounded people, including many women and children.
All 16 beds in the intensive-care unit were filled with severely wounded civilians, doctors said. Dr. Ahmad Thoboot, the hospital’s co-director, said none of the victims, alive or dead, were in uniform. “There is no doubt,” he said. “This is not fabricated. Civilians were killed.”
Descriptions of the wounds underscored the difference between mistakes with typical ground-to-ground arms and the unforgiving nature of mistakes with 500-pound bombs, which create blast waves of an entirely different order.
Dr. Mustafa Ekhial, a surgeon, said the wounds caused by NATO’s bombs were far worse than those the staff had treated for months. “We have to tell the truth,” he said. “What we saw that night was completely different.”
In previous statements, NATO said it watched the homes carefully before attacking and saw “military staging areas.” It also said that it reviewed the strikes and that claims of civilian casualties were not corroborated by “available factual information.” When asked what this information was, the alliance did not provide it.
Mr. Gafez issued a challenge. An independent review of all prestrike surveillance video, he said, would prove NATO wrong. Only civilians were there, he said, and he demanded that the alliance release the video.
Ms. Younes said the dispute missed an essential point. Under NATO’s targeting guidelines and in keeping with practices the alliance has repeatedly insisted that it followed, she said, if civilians were present, aircraft should not have attacked.
The initial findings on the Majer strikes, part of the United Nations’ investigation into actions by all sides in Libya that harmed civilians, have raised questions about the legality of the attack under international humanitarian law, according to an official familiar with the investigation.
Homes as Targets
NATO’s strikes in Majer, one of five known attacks on apparently occupied residences, suggested a pattern. When residential targets were presumed to be used by loyalist forces, civilians were sometimes present — suggesting holes in NATO’s “pattern of life” reviews and other forms of vetting.
Airstrikes on June 20 in Surman leveled homes owned by Maj. Gen. El-Khweldi el-Hamedi, a longtime confidant of Colonel Qaddafi and a member of his Revolutionary Council. NATO has said the family compound was used as command center.
The family’s account, partly confirmed by rebels, claimed that the strikes killed 13 civilians and wounded six more. Local anti-Qaddafi fighters corroborated the deaths of four of those killed — one of the general’s daughters-in-law and three of her children.
General Hamedi was wounded and has taken refuge in Morocco, said his son Khaled. Khaled has filed a lawsuit against NATO, claiming that the attack was a crime. He said that he and his family were victims of rebel “fabrications,” which attracted NATO bombs.
On Sept. 25, a smaller but similar attack destroyed the residence of Brig. Gen. Musbah Diyab in Surt, neighbors and his family members said.
General Diyab, a distant cousin of Colonel Qaddafi, was killed. So were seven women and children who crowded into his home as rebels besieged the defenses of some of the Qaddafi loyalists’ last holdouts, witnesses said.
By this time, tables in Libya had turned. The remaining loyalists held almost no territory. They were a dwindling, disorganized lot. It was the anti-Qaddafi forces who endangered civilians they suspected of having sympathies for the dying government, residents of Surt said.
On a recent afternoon, Mahmoud Zarog Massoud, his hand swollen with an infection from a wound, wandered the broken shell of a seven-story apartment building in Surt, which was struck in mid-September. His apartment furniture had been blown about by the blast.
He approached the kitchen, where, he said, he and his wife had just broken their Ramadan fast when ordnance hit. “We were not thinking NATO would attack our home,” he said.
Judging by the damage and munitions’ remains, a bomb with a delayed fuze struck another wing of the building, burrowed into another apartment and exploded, blasting walls outward. Debris flew across the courtyard and through his kitchen’s balcony door.
His wife, Aisha Abdujodil, was killed, both her arms severed, he said. Bloodstains still marked the floor and walls.
Provided written questions, NATO declined to comment on the three strikes on homes in Surman and Surt.