AJDABIYA, Libya -- An apparent NATO airstrike slammed into a rebel combat convoy yesterday, killing at least five fighters and sharply boosting anger among anti-government forces after the second bungled mission in a week blamed on the military alliance.
The attack -- outside the strategic oil port of Brega -- brought fresh questions about coordination between NATO and the patchwork of rebel militias in a conflict described by a senior U.S. commander as a stalemate that could eventually require the Pentagon to reassert more power, and possibly even send in ground forces.
Tensions between the rebels and NATO were flaring even before the latest accident, with the fighters criticizing the alliance for doing too little to help them. A rebel commander described the attack as a likely NATO accident, but said it would be a "bigger mistake" if it was waged by Moammar Gadhafi's pilots and exposed holes in NATO's efforts to ground Libyan warplanes.
In a sign of the hair-trigger tensions along the front, thousands of civilians and fighters raced out of the rebel-held city of Ajdabiya in eastern Libya after reports that Gadhafi's forces gained ground in the chaos after the bombing. Some militiamen shouted insults against NATO as they retreated. "We don't want NATO anymore!" cried fighter Basit bin Nasser.
In Brussels, NATO did not directly acknowledge responsibility for a blundered airstrike on the rebels, but noted that the area where the attack occurred was "unclear and fluid with mechanized weapons traveling in all directions."
"What remains clear is that NATO will continue to uphold the UN mandate and strike forces that can potentially cause harm to the civilian population of Libya," the alliance said in a statement.
The rebels lack the high-grade communications and surveillance systems to coordinate with NATO planners and pilots.
And from above, both sides may appear very similar. Rebels used seized tanks and vehicles from the Libyan military. The pro-Gadhafi forces, meanwhile, are increasingly mixing into civilian areas and adopting the guerrilla-style appearance of their foes.
A NATO official said there is growing frustration with the rebels' perception that NATO is acting as their proxy air force. The UN mandate calls only for international air power to enforce a no-fly zone and prevent attacks on civilians -- although Gadhafi's ground forces remain a primary target.