A NATO airstrike intended for the forces of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi killed 13 rebel fighters in the battle outside the pivotal oil port of Brega, the rebels said Saturday.
The deaths underscored the challenge that the Western allies and the rebels face in relying on airstrikes to push back the Qaddafi forces as the two sides mix in the battle zone along the front.Perhaps in response to the Western airstrikes, the Qaddafi forces are increasingly plunging into combat in equipment similar to what the rebels are using, mainly pickup trucks mounted with artillery guns. The move makes it increasingly difficult for even the combatants to distinguish one group from the other at first sight.
“It’s a mistake,” said Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, the rebel’s main spokesman. “Nothing has changed.”
One rebel fighter who was wounded in the airstrike said a fellow rebel had fired artillery into the air moments before the attack.
“I don’t know why,” the rebel, Ali Abdullah Abubaker, said later from a hospital in Benghazi. “Maybe he was scared.”
Seconds later, Mr. Abubaker heard the planes. “I saw something white,” he said. “There was no sound.”
His white pickup truck was set on fire, and he said three of the four other men in the car were killed. Mr. Abubaker, a college student studying political science, had burns on his face and was struck by bullets in his car that ignited in the blast.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels said the alliance was aware of the report and was investigating.
“NATO takes reports of civilian casualties very seriously,” the spokesman said. “But for us, exact details are hard to verify because we do not have reliable sources on the ground.”
The spokesman, who, according to NATO policy, asked not to be identified, added, “If someone fires at one of our aircraft, they have the right to defend themselves.”
NATO said that it had conducted 148 airstrike sorties in the previous 24 hours.
The strike occurred after dark on Friday as rebels were continuing their efforts to retake Brega. The Qaddafi forces had positioned forward observers in the desert outside of the city with a view of the road, enabling their superior artillery crews within Brega to hit the rebels as they tried to approach.
A group of about four rebel trucks had entered a no-man’s land of close fighting between the lines of the two sides, where they mixed with similar trucks of the Qaddafi militia. Around 8:30 p.m., several allied strikes were heard at the front.
Mr. Abubaker said the rebels had been told to search the area.
The men had stopped for prayers on a stretch of the road between Ajdabiya and Brega. A few seconds before the bombing, rebels driving a Mitsubishi truck with an artillery gun mounted on the back pulled up near the group, and one of the rebels — a man Mr. Abubaker knew — started firing the weapon into the air.
A rebel ambulance driver who arrived at the scene about an hour later said he found only the blackened remains of the four trucks and eight or nine bodies so badly burned and mangled by the explosion that he could not determine the exact number.
“I saw the fire, and the bodies, eight or nine bodies,” said the driver, Akhmed al-Ginashi. “They were totally burned.”
At Benghazi’s hospital, Brahim Fahim al-Oraybey, a 19-year-old rebel fighter, said he had been wounded in the blast. His right leg was amputated below the knee, and he was badly burned across his face, back, shoulders and hands.
He said there had been six vehicles, including an ambulance, in front of him in a convoy when the explosion struck. He had been riding in a white pickup with a machine gun mounted on the back, a favorite combat configuration of both the rebels and Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. He said he saw a local shepherd who lost both arms in the blast, but his fate was not clear.
Around the scene of the airstrikes, rebel fighters speculated that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had infiltrated the rebel lines and fired at the planes, or that celebrating rebels shooting guns into the air had drawn the allied fire.
Here on the eastern front and in the besieged western city of Misurata, rebel fighters said Saturday that they were anxious about what they perceived as a slowdown in the airstrikes, enabling Colonel Qaddafi to hold on as his forces regroup and advance.
The battle lines remained largely unchanged, centered to the east of Brega, as the fighting continued Saturday. A few rebels had established a light presence in the city, near the university, but the Qaddafi forces remained in solid control.
Although airstrikes have taken out some of the Qaddafi forces’ tanks and heavy weapons, the militia had evidently held back some of its military equipment in the relatively dense urban area, where the NATO forces cannot strike without the risk of civilian casualties.
In Washington, two lawmakers, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, argued in an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal that Western forces should refocus their airstrikes on toppling Colonel Qaddafi, moving beyond the initial mandate to protect Libyan civilians.
“A successful outcome in Libya requires the departure of Gadhafi as quickly as possible,” the senators wrote, using an alternate spelling for Qaddafi. “It is not in our interest for Libya to become the scene of a protracted stalemate that will destabilize and inflame the region.”
They continued, “The battlefield reversals suffered by the opposition this week, when weather conditions hampered coalition airstrikes, underscore the need for a more robust and coherent package of aid to the rebel ground forces.”
As a stalemate held in the eastern front, the capital, Tripoli, remained under a tight lockdown. A panic set off by the defection of the Qaddafi confidant Moussa Koussa eased slightly as only one other high-level official appeared to have fled in his wake. According to former government officials, guards were preventing others from leaving.
One senior official who had said he planned to travel to Egypt to pick up family members canceled his trip, telling reporters that he delayed it because of a paperwork problem.
There was no word on the details of talks in London by a senior aide to one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, though British officials said the aide had returned to Libya.
In an informal currency market in the old city of Tripoli, traders said Libyan dinars were selling for less than half their value just a month ago. Colonel Qaddafi has flooded the economy with new money by providing a 500-dinar subsidy to each family and pay raises to all soldiers, apparently in an effort to bolster his support.
And, currency traders said in recent days, many are hedging against the long-term survival of the Qaddafi government as well.