The United Nations authorized military intervention in Libya with the express purpose of protecting civilians from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's security forces. But today there is a growing debate about whether the intervention itself is endangering Libyan civilians.
The U.K.'s Channel 4 News is reporting that six villagers were shot and injured outside Benghazi on Monday by a U.S. Osprey helicopter crew who mistakenly believed they'd landed in hostile territory. The squad was rescuing a pilot who ejected from his fighter jet after it crashed because of a mechanical failure.
Channel 4's Lindsey Hilsum, who is reporting from the hospital where some of the Libyans were allegedly taken, claims that no one has died from the gunfire but that the victims represent the "first confirmed casualities of allied operations." The Telegraph journalist who broke the original story of the downed fighter jet is also reporting that civilians were shot during the rescue.
A military spokesman, however, has denied the allegations "100 percent," arguing that the Osprey wasn't armed and the Marines only briefly left the aircraft. Admiral Samuel Locklear, meanwhile, refused to address the reports in a briefing, though he did say an investigation into the rescue was underway. Eyewitnesses at the scene of the rescue told CBS News that U.S. forces fired to warn civilians to back away from the wreckage or to destroy the downed plane's weaponry and technology, and that no civilians were injured.
The conflicting reports come on a day of conflicting claims about civilian casualities inflicted by coalition forces in Libya.
During a visit with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov expressed concern that the coalition's air strikes were "destroying civilian facilities" and killing civilians--a charge also leveled by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, National Journal reports.
Gates claimed coalition forces were going to great lengths to prevent civilian casualities and mainly launching air strikes at Libyan defense systems away from major population centers. "It's perfectly evident that the vast majority, if not nearly all, civilian casualties have been inflicted by Qaddafi," Gates retorted. "And it's almost as though some people here are taking at face value Qaddafi's claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I'm concerned are just outright lies."
The Huffington Post's David Wood explains that while U.S. pilots are operating under conservative rules of engagement to prevent civilian casualties, they can't coordinate with troops on the ground and the rebels and Qaddafi's forces often use the same Russian-made vehicles and weapons, which makes distinguishing between the two groups difficult. There are also tough judgment calls in a campaign like this that need to be made in an instant, Wood adds:
If Gaddafi's forces fire on a group of rebels and the rebel group includes some armed civilians, does the pilot overhead open fire, or not? Should a pilot bomb an anti-Gaddafi unit attacking regime holdouts if civilians are about to be harmed? Does "protecting civilians'' include protecting them from rebel gunfire? Even if the pilot can tell one from the other?
On Tuesday, Canadian military planes aborted an airstrike in Libya out of concern about civilian casualities, according to Reuters.
5:53 pm - An unnamed U.S. defense official tells Fox News that shots were fired during the rescue mission.