NATO Helping Cause Humanitarian Crisis in Libya?

The fighters of Libya's National Transitional Council, the rebel movement turned temporary government, have launched what they say is a "final assault" on Sirte -- hometown of ousted dictator Colonel Gaddafi and one of the last redoubts of his supporters.

Thousands of civilians have fled the town, but thousands more are trapped inside, unable or unwilling to leave. The Red Cross reports that conditions inside Sirte are deteriorating, with people dying in the main hospital due to shortages of medical supplies, fuel, and water; food is also said to be in short supply.

There are no reliable casualty figures, although pro-Gaddafi forces -- not surprisingly -- are reporting hundreds of civilian deaths caused by both NTC fighters and NATO airstrikes. While those claims can't be verified, with both rebel forces bombarding the town for the past couple weeks it's inconceivable that civilians are not being killed and injured.

Even if rebel forces aren't intentionally targeting civilians, the ramshackle nature of the rebel forces and much of their equipment suggests that much of the shelling and rocketing is indiscriminate. Red Cross workers have reported rockets landing among the hospital buildings. (One of the most bizarre rebel weapons that keeps appearing in news footage is a rocket pod -- similar to this one which is usually mounted on fighter jets or attack helicopters -- bolted to the back of a pick-up truck. Hardly what you'd call a smart munition.)

You could be forgiven for wondering what the NATO forces who are still engaged in Libya plan to do about the situation in Sirte, given that UN Resolution 1973, under which they're operating, authorizes them to take "all necessary measures" to protect "civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack."

You can download the resolution itself via the link at the top of this report. There's nothing in it which precludes NATO from protecting civilians who are under threat from rebel forces. Indeed, in the early days of the campaign NATO explicitly warned the rebels that they would be targeted if they attacked civilians.

But far from defending the civilian population of Sirte, NATO warplanes were as recently as Sunday still conducting airstrikes in and around the town in support of the rebels. “Why is NATO bombing us?” asked one man who had fled with his family. It’s a fair question.

NATO had already put a highly elastic interpretation on its mandate under 1973, transitioning swiftly from protecting anti-Gaddafi protesters to flying close air support missions for the rebels. But even if one takes the view that NATO’s actions from the start of its involvement up to the fall of Tripoli were legally and morally justified, it's hard to argue that the Gaddafi loyalists besieged in Sirte and elsewhere present an imminent threat to the civilian population in areas now under NTC control. Far from protecting civilians, NATO now finds itself in the position of abetting a humanitarian crisis. Civilians in Sirte face a choice between enduring the shelling and the all-out assault on the town that’s likely within the next few days, and fleeing the city if they’re able. The Red Cross estimates that some 10,000 have fled, but that up to 30,000 more may still be trapped.

This report from a Russian news service includes harrowing eyewitness accounts of life and death in the town. Says one woman of the NTC forces:

They say: “We cannot enter Sirte, because there are civilians and we don’t want to attack civilians.” It is not true, they are attacking, bombing civilians randomly. They don’t care, all they care about is that Sirte is “liberated.”