NATO said on Friday its airstrikes hit rebel tanks fighting government forces in eastern Libya, but said it would not apologize for the deaths. Also in the region, large popular protests rocked Yemen, Syria, and Egypt.
British Rear Admiral Russell Harding, the deputy commander of the NATO operation, said the military alliance had no previous information the rebels were operating tanks when NATO struck the day before.
"I am not apologizing," said Harding. "The situation on the ground, as I said, was extremely fluid and remains extremely fluid and up until yesterday we had no information that TNC [Transitional National Council] or the opposition forces were using tanks."
Over the past week, Moammar Gadhafi's forces had began leaving their heavy armour behind and using light trucks armed with heavy machine guns and fast-firing anti-aircraft cannons on the front lines between Brega and Ajdabiya.
The five were killed were on a group of tanks moving towards Brega from Ajdabiyah further east. The pilots apparently believed the tanks belonged to forces loyal to Mr. Gadhafi.
Tensions between the rebels and NATO started flaring up since since last week when NATO took control over the international airstrikes. The rebel fighters criticized the alliance for doing too little to help them and Thursday's deaths made matters worse.
The rebel’s military commander, former interior minister Abdel Fatah Younes told journalists that his forces need NATO support, but that they are questioning what went wrong. He said, "[The rebels] don't doubt the good intentions of NATO, and it is imperative to have NATO support in order to protect civilians, but that what happened [concerning the accidental attack] poses a big question mark that we’d like to have answered."
Mr. Gadhafi's forces accused NATO of striking Sariri oil fields on Thursday, a charge denied by Rear Admiral Harding:
"I repeat, no NATO aircraft flew strikes in that area," said Harding. "What we do know is that the government forces have attacked those oil facilities in the Sarir area in an attempt to disrupt the flow of oil to Tobruk."
Anti-government protesters perform the Muslim weekly Friday prayers in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz Apr 8 2011
In Yemen, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters shouted slogans calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdallah Saleh on Friday in the capital Sanaa. A rival pro government protest took place in a different part of the capital, where President Saleh addressed the crowd, calling an initiative by Qatar, proposing his resignation, unacceptable:
He said he takes his legitimacy from the Yemeni people and not from Qatar or any other country. He called Qatar's [recent initiative] an outrageous interference in Yemeni affairs and said it is unacceptable to the Yemeni people, along with broadcasts by [Qatar's] Jazeera TV.
Arab satellite TV channels also reported that dozens of protesters in the Yemeni city of Taiz were wounded when security forces fired tear gas at them. Protesters in Taiz have blocked large parts of the city for days.
In Syria, hundreds of protesters denounced government violence and repression in the mainly Sunni-Muslim southern city of Daraa Friday. The French Press Agency reported that at least 13 people died after security forces opened fire on the crowd. Syrian government TV, however, claimed that "masked men" opened fire, causing violence to erupt.
Hundreds of protesters also shouted "freedom, freedom" in the Syrian Kurdish city of Kamishly. This week, the Syrian government announced that it was granting citizenship to Kurds in Kamishly.
Anti-government protests also rocked at least half a dozen other Syrian cities.