Libyan rebels say NATO airstrikes hit their forces

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AJDABIYA, Libya (AP) — Rebel fighters claimed that NATO airstrikes blasted their forces Thursday in another apparent mistake that sharply escalated anger about the military alliance’s efforts to cripple Libyan forces. At least five rebels were killed and more than 20 injured, a doctor said.

The attack — near the front lines outside the eastern oil port of Brega — would be the second accidental NATO strike against rebel forces in less than a week. It brought cries of outrage from fighters struggling against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s larger and more experienced military.

“Down, down with NATO,” one fighter shouted as dozens of rebel vehicles raced eastward from the front toward the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya.

Later, hundreds of cars poured out of Ajdabiya toward the de facto rebel capital, Benghazi, amid fears that pro-Gadhafi forces could use the disarray among rebel units to advance along the Mediterranean coastal road that serves as the lifeline for both sides.

In Brussels, a NATO official said that the alliance will look into the latest rebel claims but that he had no immediate information. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under standing regulations.

In a separate statement, NATO dismissed Libyan claims that British warplanes had struck the country’s largest oil field, saying the attacks were carried out by government forces.

NATO last week took control over the international airstrikes that began March 19 as a U.S.-led mission. The airstrikes thwarted Col. Gadhafi’s efforts to crush the rebellion in the North African nation he has ruled for more than four decades, but the rebels remain outnumbered and outgunned and have had difficulty pushing into government-held territory, even with air support.

In Washington, U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham — who led the initial phases of the Libyan mission before transferring command to NATO — described the conflict as a stalemate and said Col. Gadhafi’s forces are making airstrikes more difficult by mixing into civilian areas.

A rebel commander, Ayman Abdul-Karim, said he saw airstrikes hit tanks and a rebel convoy, which included a passenger bus carrying fighters toward Brega. He and other rebels described dozens killed or wounded, but a precise casualty toll was not immediately known.

An official at Ajdabiya Hospital, Dr. Mohammad Idris, said at least five people were killed and 22 injured, including some with serious burns. Dr. Idris said other casualties were left in the field in the chaos to flee the area.

In Benghazi, opposition spokeswoman Iman Bughaigis said the death toll could be as high as 13.

The small medical facility was overwhelmed. One rebel sat in a hallway as he wrapped gauze around his injured leg.

Last Friday, a NATO airstrike killed 13 rebel fighters in eastern Libya. An opposition spokesman described it as an “unfortunate accident” in the shifting battles and pledged support for the international air campaign to weaken Col. Gadhafi’s military power.

On Thursday, NATO said the situation where the strike occurred was “unclear and fluid with mechanized weapons traveling in all directions.”

“What remains clear is that NATO will continue to uphold the U.N. mandate and strike forces that can potentially cause harm to the civilian population of Libya,” the alliance said.

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