By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A New York-based rights group is urging NATO to investigate civilian deaths the alliance may have caused during its eight-month military operation in Libya that helped bring about the ouster and death of Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya's new interim government, which has been in control of the oil-producing OPEC member since former leader Gaddafi was forced to flee Tripoli in August, estimates that more than 40,000 Libyans were killed during the country's civil war, Libyan U.N. envoy Ibrahim Dabbashi told Reuters.
"Gaddafi was responsible for these deaths," Dabbashi told Reuters on Thursday.
Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a rights advocacy group, is in Libya and has been investigating several dozen civilian casualties allegedly caused by NATO.
During the war, Gaddafi's forces were eager to show journalists, HRW and other rights groups what it claimed were sites of civilian massacres caused by NATO airstrikes.
Many of the corpses displayed for reporters were clearly military personnel, not civilians. Nor were the civilians necessarily victims of NATO attacks.
Abrahams has been investigating the matter to determine as precisely as possible how many civilians were killed by the NATO airstrikes, which began in March and ceased in October.
"By our count, up to 50 civilians died in the (NATO) campaign, perhaps more," Abrahams told Reuters.
"We're not alleging unlawful attacks, let alone war crimes," he said. "We believe the onus is on NATO to investigate these cases thoroughly so they can identify and correct the mistakes."
He urged NATO to consider compensation "as appropriate."
LIYBA SEES NO NEED FOR NATO INVESTIGATION
Western diplomats from NATO members say the alliance never targeted civilians, which would constitute a war crime, though they fear critics of the NATO's handling of the war will seize on estimates of civilian deaths to accuse NATO of war crimes.
One U.N. official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the number of civilians unfortunately killed by NATO air strikes appears to have been relatively small, indicating that the alliance did their best to avoid "collateral damage."
The alliance has been highly criticized for civilian casualties in Afghanistan, though the estimated death tolls are far higher than what HRW alleges NATO caused in Libya.
The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is investigating allegations that NATO, Gaddafi's forces and the rebels all committed war crimes.
NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the alliance had no figures for the number of civilian casualties its bombing campaign may have caused but took "every possible precaution to minimize the possibility of civilian casualties." She added that it was impossible to entirely remove the risk to civilians.
She said the alliance "deeply regrets any loss of civilian life and if there is credible evidence it is for the Libyan authorities to take the lead in dealing with any such claim."
But Libya's government has not asked NATO to investigate.
"There is no need for a NATO investigation," Dabbashi said. "Usually it is acceptable that there will be some civilian casualties because of some errors."
He added that all Libyan casualties were regrettable and that Gaddafi, who was captured and killed by rebel forces in October, deserved most of the blame for civilian deaths.
"Gaddafi placed his forces inside civilian areas, like schools," Dabbashi said. He added that the government was conducting its own inquiry into the war.
After abstaining from a March 17 vote on U.N. Security Council resolution 1973, which authorized U.N. member states to enforce a no-fly zone and use "all necessary measures" to protect Libyan civilians, Russia and China repeatedly accused NATO of overstepping its mandate by seeking to oust Gaddafi.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday dismissed the idea that NATO had acted beyond its mandate: "Security Council resolution 1973, I believe, was strictly enforced within the limit, within the mandate."
Lungescu acknowledged that there was an incident in June when a bomb malfunctioned and apparently killed some civilians.
"On the case where they admit a mistake, I've been there," HRW's Abrahams said. "It's the al-Gharari family - five members including a little girl. I have photos and death certificates."
Abrahams said that he and a representative of another rights group, CIVIC, personally presented NATO with their reports of civilian casualties in Libya caused by NATO.
(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Christian Lowe in Algiers; editing by Cynthia Osterman)