AJDABIYA, Libya — Libyan rebels accused NATO of launching deadly airstrikes on their forces Thursday outside the front-line oil town of Brega, signaling growing confusion in the military effort to thwart Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Rebels blamed the attack on NATO planes, but the commander of the rebel army said it was possible that Gadhafi's air force had evaded the NATO-enforced no-fly zone. The midmorning attack killed at least five people, doctors said, and allowed Gadhafi's forces to launch artillery rounds at the strategic city of Ajdabiya, although rebels later retook their positions outside the city.
It would be the second accidental NATO strike against rebel forces in less than a week — at least 13 rebels were killed in an airstrike on Brega last Saturday — but nearly 12 hours after what he described as "a vicious attack," Gen. Abdulfatah Younis, the commander of rebel forces, still couldn't say with certainty who was responsible. He said NATO had apologized to his forces but that he hadn't communicated directly with the alliance.
"If the bombardment was carried out by NATO, then it's definitely a mistake, and if the airstrike was carried out by Gadhafi troops, then it is an even bigger mistake," Younis said.
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Libya's opposition has expressed growing frustration with NATO, which it accuses of not doing enough to protect civilians in rebel-held towns that are under siege from Gadhafi's forces. Rebels who were treated for injuries at the small, overwhelmed hospital in Ajdabiya expressed shock that NATO warplanes could mistake a convoy of their tanks _ which they said were stationary and flying the tricolor rebel flag — for those loyal to Gadhafi.
"NATO is cheating us. NATO is not with us," said a teary-eyed Ahmed Salim Youssef, 25.
NATO officials in Brussels said they were investigating the matter but described the area where the airstrike took place as "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.
The small oil port of Brega has become the fulcrum for several days of seesaw battles between the rebels and Gadhafi loyalists for control of Libya's Mediterranean coastline. About 50 miles north of Brega lies Ajdabiya, the last redoubt before the rebel capital of Benghazi, a city of some 1 million people.
About 12 miles outside Brega, rebels said that missiles launched from a low-flying warplane struck four tanks — including three Soviet-built T-72s that rebel forces had seized from Gadhafi's army during recent battles — and a passenger bus ferrying fighters to the front line.
Underscoring the confusion, a spokeswoman for the opposition, Eman Boughaigis, said initially that Gadhafi loyalist aircraft had carried out the attack. However, rebels said the size and precision of the blasts suggested that they'd come from NATO planes.
About two hours after the airstrike, Gadhafi ground forces who'd been in Brega took advantage of the confusion to advance on Ajdabiya from three directions, shelling the western gate of the city with artillery rounds that shook the scrubland with large black plumes of smoke. The rounds sent the rebels running for cover across a sand-swept desert highway. Trucks laden with Grad missiles raced through Ajdabiya toward Benghazi, ignoring a uniformed rebel soldier who waved at the passing vehicles to stop.
The rebel leadership is good, "but the problem is NATO," said Idriss Abdulkarim, a unit leader in the rebel army. "We were doing good before NATO took the mission. The national council has to change the mission back to France. Now the situation is very bad. We can't do anything."
Libyan opposition officials have voiced alarm at the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Misrata, a rebel-held city in western Libya that Gadhafi's forces have attacked with snipers and artillery barrages, and complained that NATO has failed to stop the attacks. Earlier this week, the Turkish navy, under NATO command, stopped a ship from delivering weapons and medical supplies to Misrata because the weapons would contravene an arms embargo.
Speaking Thursday, Younis played down tensions between the rebels and the alliance and said they were in "minute-by-minute communication."
"We are not generally questioning the intentions of NATO, because they are supposedly here to help us and to protect the civilians," Younis said. "But we would like to receive some answers about what happened today and we would like a rational and convincing explanation. And we hope that such a mistake would not be repeated."
The rebels are struggling to rehabilitate aging weaponry and are slowly being bolstered by weapons from allied nations such as Qatar, Younis said. On Thursday, about 20 rebel tanks arrived on the front line for the first time, including 12 T-55 tanks that had sat unused at a military base in Benghazi for years and had just been rehabilitated, and several T-72s.
Qatar recently supplied the rebels with simple anti-tank weapons and sent two trainers to teach the ragtag rebels how to operate them.
"Our soldiers have never dealt with" the weapons, Younis said. "They are being trained."
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