28 Apr 2011

The price for NATO's protection?

Chief Correspondent

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson blogs on why the rebel forces in Misrata were being uncharacteristically reluctant to take them to the site of a recent explosion.

Channel 4 News Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson blogs on why the rebel forces in Misrata were being uncharacteristically reluctant to take them to the site of a recent explosion:

The first we knew was late last night.

Shadowy figures padding across the communal C4News’ underground bunker-cum-bedroom.

“Mr Alex! Mr Alex!”, said  Ali who keeps watch , “there are men to see you. Please come now.”

Somehow our producer David Fuller – ever vigilant – was already at my side as I went upstairs to say salaams.

What we found were three young men keen to tell us what they said was an air-strike to the north of the town. It was NATO they said. And they insisted over and over again that 15 people had been killed and several more seriously hurt.

The claims were more credible because all three were bona fide Red Crescent volunteers with name tags. All in all pretty much the last people on earth who would want to smear NATO in any way.

Two had personally visited the scene as Red Crescent rescuers, and one, Ali, says:

“It was horrible. There were two burning cars there. The roof of the building had collapsed. People were trapped. There were bits of bodies all over the place. I counted at least twelve dead people there. It was awful.”

He did not see any large crater – but then he said he was too busy looking after the injured and transporting the dead to care about such evidence.

All three agreed that the building hit by the explosion was a stores and supply depot for rebels fighting further east of the city. It is close to the city’s massive – now silent – steelworks and the port area to the east of Misrata itself.

The reason such a place was used was – obviously – that it was at least 15 kms from the fighting positions yesterday afternoon at 5pm when the missile struck. That is, well out of range of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces still ranged around this city. Another reason why people here blame NATO

A man injured in the blast in Misrata’s Hikam Clinic, makes a whining sound when I ask why he thinks it was NATO:

“It sounded different. Different noise from Gaddafi bombs. Much, much bigger. Different completely”, he says through our interpreter.

This morning we duly tried to take our sources back to the scene. It was impossible. This is a rebel force with a media centre, simultaneously translated press conferences with Google imagery on screen; with drivers and cars at the disposal of any journo who pitches up – and yet, astonishingly, we were banned from visiting.

Eventually the reason was, they said, they had orders from NATO. Eh? I hadn’t mentioned NATO at that point. If this had been Colonel Gadaffi’s men killing at least a dozen people, the rebels would have been laying on tours for the media from the moment it happened.

And why start talking about orders from NATO at a rebel roadblock if it was The Colonel’s men at fault?

So clearly something was very, very wrong.

Around town you will of course find plenty of people willing to cast doubt, and say we don’t yet know.

From NATO itself as I write, a strange statement saying they did hit a number of military vehicles in this area yesterday around 5pm but they did not hit any building. Then they go on to say they regret any loss of life which seems as near to a tacit admission that is was their missile, as we are going to get .

Others shrug and, as one doctor put it at the hospital:

“It’s unfortunate but these things will happen. This is the price we have to pay for NATO protection.”

And the uncharacteristic media-hostility we encountered this morning lends credence to the NATO theory in another important respect. When these things happen, NATO routinely asks the rebels to keep the media away and anybody else for that matter. And this is not simply to control the political embarrassment.

There is also a genuine reason – once they’ve bombed a “target” once through error it is perfectly possible they might still return for afters to make sure the job was done, if the message has still not got through the chain of command.

Another reason to stop us today. Another piece of evidence in the jigsaw pointing to NATO, rather than Colonel Gaddafi’s men for what happened at this lonely house, out on the salt flats east of Misrata, at five o’clock yesterday afternoon.