Libya on Saturday accused UN chief Ban Ki-moon of playing with words after he acknowledged NATO efforts to avoid civilian casualties a day after urging restraint over “unacceptably” high deaths.
“The secretary general has consistently called for restraint and caution to avoid civilian casualties. He of course recognises and appreciates NATO's efforts to avoid civilian casualties,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters on Friday.
In a statement released by his office on Thursday, Mr. Ban had sounded the alarm over civilian deaths and called for new efforts to find a political solution between Libya's long-time strongman Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and opposition rebels.
“The secretary general is deeply concerned by reports of the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties as a result of the conflict in Libya,” said a statement.
Mr. Ban “calls on all parties to exercise extreme caution in their actions, in order to minimize any further loss of civilian life.”
But Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaaim told reporters early on Saturday Ban's statement was “unacceptable” for not singling out NATO for “being responsible for civilian deaths in Libya.”
“The only party that must be blamed for the loss of civilian lives is NATO,” he said.
Mr. Kaaim on Saturday also denied that the rebels had entered the eastern oil hub of Brega almost six months after rising up against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
They vowed on Friday that in “a few days” they plan to retake Brega on the Gulf of Sirte.
Rebels, backed by NATO helicopters, have tried for the past three weeks to seize the vital port 240 kilometers (140 miles) southwest of their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.
By late Thursday, after a day of fighting, the rebels said they had taken control of one of three residential zones in Brega.
“Every day, we are gaining ground,” said Fawzi Bukatif, a civil engineer and a top commander of the insurrection.
In Benghazi on Friday, the rebels buried five “martyrs,” including the commander of a brigade of volunteer civilians, killed the day before on the front line at Brega, an AFP journalist said.
“Today we are in mourning. Tomorrow we take revenge,” said a lieutenant at the funeral before heading back to the front.
Meanwhile, rebels from Misrata pushed against Colonel Qaddafi’s troops in Tuarga in an effort to end the barrage of missiles hitting the western town almost daily.
Rebels controlled much of Tuarga on Friday, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
They searched the town door-to-door for remnants of Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, after clearing residential areas in the north and centre.
In a symbolic show of victory, fighters tore down green flags hoisted by Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters who just hours earlier had occupied the area.
The two sides exchanged artillery fire that doctors said left at least three rebels dead and as many as 30 wounded.
NATO was authorized in March by UN Security Council resolution 1973 to defend Libya's civilian population from attacks by Colonel Qaddafi’s regime.
The alliance's top Libya commander, Canada's Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, told AFP the air strikes had affected Colonel Qaddafi’s military capabilities.
“The Qaddafi regime's forces continue to be weakened, both in strength and their will to fight,” he said from his Italian headquarters.
“They are no longer able to launch a credible offensive.”
LtGen. Bouchard reported “activity” on three fronts -- in Brega, Misrata and the Nafusa mountains -- adding that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces are “shooting blindly on civilians.”
“On the three fronts, we're seeing changes as anti-Qaddafi forces march forward to stop the attacks on the population,” he said.
Tripoli last week accused NATO of killing 85 people, including women and children, with air strikes on the village of Majer, south of the disputed city of Zliten -- charges Bouchard denied.
“I can assure you that the target was a legitimate one that contained mercenaries, a command centre and 4x4 vehicles modified with automatic weapons, rocket launchers or mortars,” LtGen. Bouchard said.
“I cannot believe that 85 civilians were present when we struck in the wee hours of the morning, and given our intelligence” on the target.
“I can assure you that there (were not) 85 civilians present, but I cannot assure you that there were none at all.”