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Rights Group: NATO Must Probe Allegations it Killed Libyan Civilians

CNN Wire Staff

People walk past destroyed buildings on Monday, in Majer, south of Zliten.

TRIPOLI, Libya -- A leading human rights organization is calling on NATO to investigate allegations that it killed 85 civilians during airstrikes on forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

The demand by Amnesty International Wednesday followed government accusations days earlier that NATO killed civilians in the western part of the country to help clear the way for rebels advancing on the Gadhafi-controlled city of Zlitan.

"NATO continues to stress its commitment to protect civilians. To that effect, it should thoroughly investigate this and all other recent incidents in which civilians were reportedly killed in western Libya as a result of airstrikes," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International said in a statement.

Eighty-five civilians, including 33 children, were killed in airstrikes Monday near the village of Majer, Gadhafi's government said.

NATO says its warplanes Monday struck two farms used as a staging point for Gadhafi's forces.

"This is a legitimate target. And by striking it, NATO has reduced pro-Gadhafi forces capabilities to threaten and attack civilians," said Col. Roland Lavoie, a spokesman for the NATO operation.

"We do not have evidence of civilian casualties at this stage, although casualties among military personnel, including mercenaries, are very likely due to the nature of the target."

Maj. Gen. Nick Pope, spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence, said Thursday that British aircraft have been in action in recent days "as part of NATO's mission to protect civilians at risk of attack from Col. Gadhafi's former regime."

The latest efforts included British aircraft carrying out precision airstrikes on several sites in and around Zlitan, Pope said in a statement.

Libya has been mired in a civil war since shortly after a violent government crackdown in February on mass demonstrations calling for the end of Gadhafi's regime. A NATO-led bombing campaign against Gadhafi's forces began in March after the U.N. Security Council approved a resolution to protect Libyan civilians.

NATO has come under fire in recent months by some human rights groups and foreign countries for reportedly errant airstrikes that have resulted in civilians being killed.

Amnesty urged NATO to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties.

On Monday, government officials escorted international journalists to a mass funeral in Majer, and to the site where the government alleges an airstrike killed civilians.

It was impossible for CNN to confirm the extent of the casualties, and whether they were all civilians.

For weeks, Zlitan has been the target of an intense NATO bombing campaign. The number of buildings and compounds devastated by airstrikes has visibly increased since international journalists went on a government-controlled tour of the small city in July.

The Gadhafi regime has accused NATO of hitting food warehouses, health clinics and schools. But a tour of one bomb site last week revealed evidence suggesting the target was not entirely civilian.

CNN found several military uniforms lying on the ground next to wooden ammunition crates. When asked about the military paraphernalia, a government escort said the ammo boxes and uniforms "belonged to school security guards."

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