WASHINGTON — Members of the NATO alliance have sternly warned the rebels in Libya not to attack civilians as they push against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, according to senior military and government officials.
As NATO takes over control of airstrikes in Libya and the Obama administration considers new steps to tip the balance of power there, the coalition has told the rebels that if they endanger civilians, they will not be shielded from possible bombardment by NATO planes and missiles, just as the regime’s forces have been punished.
“We’ve been conveying a message to the rebels that we will be compelled to defend civilians, whether pro-Gadhafi or pro-opposition,” said a senior Obama administration official.
The warnings, and intense consultations within the NATO-led coalition over its rules for attacking anyone who endangers innocent civilians, come at a time when the civil war in Libya is becoming ever more chaotic, and the battle lines ever less distinct. They raise a fundamental question that the military is now grappling with: Who in Libya is a civilian?
In the early days of the campaign, the civilian population needing protection was hunkered down in cities like Benghazi, behind a thin line of rebel defenders who were easily distinguishable from the attacking government forces.
That is no longer always the case. Armed rebels — some in fairly well-organized militias, others merely young men who have picked up rifles to fight alongside them — have moved out of Benghazi in an effort to take control of other population centers along the way, they hope, to seizing Tripoli.
Meanwhile, fresh intelligence this week showed that Libyan government forces were supplying assault rifles to civilians in the town of Sirte, which is populated largely by Gadhafi loyalists. These civilian Gadhafi sympathizers were seen chasing rebel forces in nonmilitary vehicles like sedans and trucks, accompanied by Libyan troops, according to U.S. military officers.
The increasing murkiness of the battlefield, as the freewheeling rebels advance and retreat and as fighters from both sides mingle among civilians, has prompted NATO members to issue new “rules of engagement” spelling out when the coalition may attack units on the ground in the name of protecting civilians.
“This is a challenge,” said a senior alliance military officer. “The problem of discriminating between combatant and civilian is never easy, and it is compounded when you have Libyan regime forces fighting irregular forces, like the rebel militias, in urban areas populated by civilians.”
Oana Lungescu, the senior NATO spokeswoman, emphasized that NATO was taking action because Gadhafi’s forces were attacking Libyan civilians, including shelling cities with artillery. She said if the rebels do likewise, the organization will move to stop them, too, because the U.N. Security Council resolution “applies to both sides.”