LONDON: The Danish Defense Ministry is launching an investigation into NATO-led airstrikes on Libya in 2011 in which Denmark’s air force killed 14 civilians, The Guardian reported on Thursday.
It is the first time that any of the 10 countries involved in the NATO campaign to remove former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from power has admitted potential involvement in the killing of civilians.
The 10 countries, including six from Europe, took part in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector, which lasted six months in 2011.
The campaign led to the collapse of the Qaddafi regime but resulted in more than a decade of instability in Libya, which remains divided to this day.
Danish aerial bombardment led to the killing of civilians in two incidents. The first, an airstrike on Surman, west of Tripoli, killed 12 civilians — including five children and six members of one family — in June 2011.
In September that year, a Danish strike on an apartment block in Sirte killed two civilians — a man and a pregnant woman.
The site was targeted over unconfirmed reports that snipers had set up on the rooftop, The Guardian reported.
Documents show that Denmark had privately understood from as early as 2012 that its military may have been involved in civilian casualties highlighted in a UN commission and by Human Rights Watch.
But its decision to avoid acknowledging the matter publicly prevented relatives of the slain civilians from seeking legal redress.
Khaled Al-Hamedi, whose wife and children were killed in the June 2011 strike on Surman, tried to bring a legal claim against NATO but was rebuffed by the Belgian court of appeal, which ruled in 2017 that the alliance had immunity from prosecution.
Al-Hamedi’s father, a senior figure in the Qaddafi regime, owned the Surman compound that was targeted in the strike.
But the Libyan national disputed a NATO claim that the building served as a “command and control node,” describing it as residential.
Al-Hamedi said he would consider bringing a claim against Denmark after discovering that officials from the country were aware of the possibility of civilian casualties more than a decade ago. “I want them first to declare their mistake to us … to say sorry as well,” he added.
The Danish Defense Ministry said in a statement: “The minister of defence has requested the Defence Command to assess whether the documents in question indicate that there were ramifications of such magnitude that an investigation should have been conducted at that time within the coalition or NATO framework.”
One newly released document from 2012, detailing Denmark’s response to the UN commission’s findings on the Surman and Sirte strikes, said: “Civilian casualties … cannot be ruled out.”
Marc Garlasco, an adviser to the UN-established international commission of inquiry on Libya, said: “It is greatly disappointing that there wasn’t enough transparency that they put this out at a time back when it could be useful.
“Useful not only for lessons learned, so that lives could be saved in the future, but also useful for the victims of these strikes — that they could have an understanding of why their family members were killed and could potentially receive some kind of compensation for their loss.”
Responding to Denmark’s opening of an investigation, a NATO official said the campaign in Libya involved “unprecedented precision” and “exceptional care … to minimize risks to civilians.”
NATO’s internal investigations into strikes on Libya were complicated by its lack of ground forces in the country, which could have been used to inspect damage to targeted sites.
“There was no invitation from the Libyan authorities for NATO to send personnel into the country to review strikes,” the official added.
Tessa Gregory, a partner at British public law firm Leigh Day, said: “In military operations where it is alleged that civilian casualties have occurred, it is imperative that those allegations are properly investigated and that victims are given enough information to seek redress under international and domestic legal mechanisms. Without transparency, it is likely a culture of impunity will flourish.”