13 Jun 2011

The fog of war in Gaddafi's Libya

The difficulty of untangling stories of bombing in Tripoli – from our International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum, in Tripoli.

It was, I suppose, a bit tactless to mention the nine tanks and APCs outside the bombed medical factory at El Maya.

Our minders seemed surprised that we had bothered to mention them, sitting innocently in front of the sparkling blue Mediterranean. Admittedly they did look fairly ancient. The factory manager, Dr Abdullah al Medani, said they had been hit by NATO some time earlier and towed there two months ago.

Why put them here, just next to a factory producing medical oxygen on which – as they stressed – Libya‘s 97 hospitals depend?

“When you have tanks like this already destroyed, are you going to leave it in the street?” he asked. “You have to keep it somewhere that looks like Sahara, an empty place….”

I felt rather sorry for Dr El Madani. I have no doubt that he was genuinely trying to produce oxygen for Libya’s hospitals. It’s not his fault if Colonel Gaddafi’s military decide to park their clapped out tanks on his lawn. Or beach.

And then there was the problem of the neighbours. I could see a huge warehouse a few yards away, which had also been hit. Poor Dr El Madani went a bit vague at this point. It was owned by the private sector, he wasn’t sure who, this was an industrial area… he changed the subject.

A few minutes later I found someone else – and I won’t reveal his or her identity – who solved at least some of the mystery. The warehouse was a military camp. Soldiers came and went all the time. It had been hit four times on Thursday. The attack on Saturday had been a single bomb, and it had hit the control room of the oxygen factory.

Read more in the Channel 4 News Special Report on the Libya war

NATO confirmed that on Thursday they had hit what they called “El Maya camp”, a military installation. They said there was no record of attacks in the area on Saturday.

It’s difficult untangling stories like this, let alone ascribing blame. Was the medical oxygen factory also being used for a military purpose? Or was it a near miss – NATO was aiming at the army camp, but hit the factory by mistake? Had the Libyans placed the tanks in front of the factory carelessly or deliberately?

It’s what they call the fog of war, and in Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, where our movements are restricted and there’s a culture of obfuscation, it’s not lifting.

Follow Lindsey Hilsum on Twitter: @lindseyhilsum