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Danish revelations about Libya bombing 13 years ago could help victims’ families

February 15, 2024 at 8:00 am

A picture taken on a government-guided tour, shows rescue teams inspecting damaged buildings on the sprawling estate of Khuwildi Hemidi, a veteran comrade of Moamer Kadhafi, in the Sorman area, 70 kilometres (45 miles) west of Tripoli, Libya on 20 June 2011 [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images]

Recently released documents show that Denmark’s Ministry of Defence has known about at least two air strikes in two different cities in Libya in which at least 14 civilians were killed during NATO’s air campaign. Denmark, a NATO member, took part in the alliance’s air strikes to topple the government of the late leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Other non-NATO member states like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan also took part in the air campaign, authorised by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1073 under the pretext of protecting civilians against attacks by Gaddafi forces.

Documents, released under a Freedom of Information Act request, show that Denmark’s Ministry of Defence and the country’s armed forces knew, as earlier as in 2012, that their F-16 fighter jets were “connected to the death of the civilians.” However they never revealed that information before. The ministry has now said it will review what happened.

On 20 June 2011, an air strike on a residential compound in the western city of Surman, some 60 kilometres west of Tripoli, killed 12 people including children. Among the dead were: six-year-old Khalida Khaled, her four-year-old brother, Al-Khuwailidi Khaled, and their mother Safa Mahmoud. Six-year-old Salam Nouri also died in the attack, along with eight-month-old Amira Patti. The kids had gathered to celebrate little Al-Khuwailidi’s fourth birthday when they were killed, according to his father Khaled Al-Hamadi who was also present but, luckily, survived the attack.

Libyan victims’ families have for the last 13 years been seeking justices for their dead loved ones. This has been in vain.

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Another strike on 16 September 2011, on Al-Tami’n residential apartment block in Sirte, in the middle of Libya, killed Aisha Abdul Bashir, a five-month pregnant 40-year-old lady, along with her husband 47-year-old Ali Aswaisi.

These two air strikes were among over a dozen attacks in which hundreds of civilians were killed in at least five Libyan cities including Tripoli, Surman, Bani Walid, Sirte and Zliten.

During the NATO campaign the alliance never admitted that its airplanes had killed any civilians in Libya except in one case, that of the bombing of Al-Ghrari family in Souk Al-Juma, west of Tripoli, in which five people including seven-month-old Jumana Shehab, her brother, Khalid, who was only two months old, were killed along with their mother Karima Ali Al-Ghari, 38, and father Abdullah Shehab, 44. The same air strike left seven people with different injuries including the dead family’s uncle, Mohamed Al-Ghrari. Commenting on the strike, the alliance issued a statement “blaming” the civilian deaths on what it called “weapons systems failure”. It did not accept responsibility nor did it reveal which country’s fighter jets were involved in the attack. Such information would, even today, help victims’ families seek accountability and possible compensation.

Both air strikes in Sirte and Surman were documented by many international organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN. NATO was asked, several times, to investigate the cases but it never did, denying that any civilians were killed in its seven-month relentless bombardment of Libya. The alliance was also approached for this article but did not reply.

The new revelations are likely to fuel a new public and legal debate, at least in Libya and Denmark, about the NATO campaign—with the potential for legal actions by victims’ families.

Khaled Al-Hamidi, whose wife and two children were killed in the Surman attack, has been leading efforts to hold NATO accountable. He filed a case against the military alliance in a Belgian court asking the alliance to admit responsibility and possible pay reparations. However, according to Belgian laws, NATO enjoys diplomatic immunity, protecting it from any criminal or civil court proceedings. The case failed.

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In 2018, with the help of other victims’ families, Al-Hamidi founded the Association of NATO and War Victims in Libya (ANWL) which now represents all bereaved families as they continue searching for the truth about why their loved ones were killed mostly in their sleep. The association’s spokesperson, Mohamed Al-Hamidi, told MEMO that they are seeking “court action” in Denmark itself against the Ministry of Defence and to do that it is “working with European Union based lawyers” to re-launch new cases against NATO.

If such a case succeeds, that could lead to other countries being named – because most strikes were carried out by numerous parties – and this could open the door to holding other countries accountable.

All Libyan governments that came to power since the 2011 civil war have, so far, refrained from discussing the issue of civilians killed by NATO air strikes. In fact, at one point the issue was a taboo in Libya and talking about it in public would have led to problems. Many observers accuse them of “betraying” the victims’ families by not conducting their own investigations. NATO officials recently told the Guardian newspaper that the alliance was “never asked by any Libyan government” to “send personnel into the country to review strikes.”

Many believe the Libyan authorities that came to power after the Gaddafi regime do not want any investigation simply because such scrutiny “would reveal that many top former and current officials” were NATO informants providing coordinates of targets for the alliance to bomb. For example Abdurrahman Shalgam, former Libyan ambassador to the UN, appeared in a video speaking to the UN Security Council in 2012 saying that Al-Hamidi’s residential compound that was bombed in Surman was the army’s depot for the Gaddafi regime. In the same video, Shalgam denied that any civilians were killed. I sent him the video and asked him for comment as he might be taken to court by the ANWL, but he never responded.

His colleague, Othman Abduljalil, is also on record personally providing coordinates for what he said were Gaddafi government military installations for NATO to destroy. He was rewarded by being appointed minister of education from 2017 to 2019 and now serves as minister of health in the Benghazi government which is not recognised by the UN.

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As recently as a few months ago, a group of victims’ families visited Libya’s Prosecutor General asking for an investigation into their deaths only to be told that the case had been closed. The fact that the Libyan authorities have, for years, refused any investigations into the civilian deaths clearly means they have much to hide. Unfortunately for them, the Danish review is likely to expose whatever is being hidden.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.