March 24, 2011 / 12:30 PM / in 7 years

Hit by Western bombs, Libya mounts propaganda war

* Government provides no firm evidence of civilian deaths

* Gaddafi uses strong language to denounce the West

By Maria Golovnina

TRIPOLI, March 24 (Reuters) - Its defences battered by coalition air power, Libya is fighting back with a blaring propaganda campaign designed to present it as an innocent victim of “colonial crusader” aggression.

Muammar Gaddafi’s government says dozens of civilians have been killed in five straight nights of Western air strikes, but has not shown reporters any firm evidence of civilian deaths. Western military officials deny any civilians have been killed.

From fiery statements on state TV to carefully orchestrated press events in Tripoli, Gaddafi’s government is also working overtime to convince the world its forces are not involved in military action against civilians in rebel-held cities.

People in besieged rebel cities such as Misrata, reached by Reuters by telephone, have painted a different picture, saying days of air strikes have failed to stop bombardments and shootings of civilians by Gaddafi forces.

Gaddafi says anti-government rebels are al Qaeda militants. But as coalition strikes began over the weekend, the Libyan leader has himself resorted to language increasingly reminiscent of the Islamist group’s anti-Western rhetoric.

“This is a crusader war against the Muslim people, especially against the Libyan people. They believe they will terrify the Libyan people,” he said in a speech on Sunday.

“All Libyan cities will revolt and we will eliminate all traitors who cooperate with America and the crusader alliance.”

In some quarters Libya’s campaign has worked.

Russia, a United Nations Security Council member, has described coalition attacks as “indiscriminate”, prompting U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to accuse Moscow of swallowing Gaddafi’s “lies” about civilian deaths.

Coalition forces, acting in accordance with a U.N. Security Council resolution authorising a no fly zone and measures to protect civilians, have pounded Libyan targets since Sunday.

Libyan officials say both military and civilian sites have been hit by air strikes, but have not taken reporters to the sites of bombings on civilian areas despite repeated requests.

NO EVIDENCE

The Libyan authorities have staged a number of media events to demonstrate that civilians have been killed, but none of them has produced firm evidence. On Wednesday, officials promised a visit to one civilian site they said was damaged by a coalition attack, but that trip did not materialise.

On Thursday, Reuters journalists given access to a morgue saw the corpses of 18 adult males, the first time foreign reporters in Tripoli were shown bodies of what the government described as victims of allied strikes.

A Libyan official there said some of the dead were soldiers killed in a Wednesday air strike and some were civilians. The journalists were not shown bodies of women or children.

Separately on Wednesday, officials drove reporters to a remote desert town southeast of Tripoli to show the family of a soldier who had been killed fighting rebels in eastern Libya.

One local tribal member, Mansour Khalaf, asked by visiting reporters why they had been taken there, said: “I don’t know. It’s not my problem.”

On March 20, government officials took foreign reporters to a cemetery in Tripoli to attend a funeral service for people who officials said were killed by Western bombs.

People attending the service gave conflicting accounts of how their relatives had died, making it difficult to assess the veracity of the official version.

Asked earlier why reporters could not visit families of those killed in air strikes, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said it was unsafe to speak to them in current circumstances.

“People (journalists) should not approach those who have lost their family members,” he said on March 20. “We need to keep you away from them, guys. They may do something silly.” (Additional reporting by Khaled al-Ramahi, Zohra Bensemra and Michael Georgy; Writing by Maria Golovnina; Editing by Peter Graff)

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