NATO's bombing campaign in Libya left 72 civilians dead last year, a leading human rights group said Monday, accusing the military alliance of failing to acknowledge the deaths.
In a 76-page report, Human Rights Watch urged NATO to provide "prompt and suitable compensation" to families for the civilian deaths, injuries and loss of property.
HRW's field investigation at the sites of eight NATO air strikes found that 20 women and 24 children were among the 72 people killed.
"To date, NATO has failed to acknowledge these casualties or to examine how and why they occurred," the New York-based group said in the report.
HRW reported a higher death toll than an investigation conducted by Amnesty International, which said in March that 55 people, including 16 children and 14 women, were killed in strikes in Tripoli and the towns of Zliten, Majer, Sirte and Brega.
The NATO campaign, which was authorised by the United Nations, played a key role in helping rebels bring down dictator Moamer Kadhafi, but it left a deep rift in the UN Security Council.
Russia, China, South Africa and India all say NATO's tactics breached UN resolutions, but the Western alliance insists that its action were legal and saved civilians from a massacre.
"NATO conducted the campaign for Libya with unprecedented care and precision and to a standard exceeding that required by international humanitarian law," NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in a statement.
"NATO did everything possible to minimise risks to civilians, but in a complex military campaign, that risk can never be zero," she said.
"We deeply regret any instance of civilian casualties for which NATO may have been responsible."
She added that the alliance "looked into each credible allegation" of harm to civilians and "confirmed that the specific targets struck by NATO were legitimate military targets."
HRW acknowledged that NATO took great care to minimise civilian deaths during the seven-month campaign, during which the alliance flew some 26,000 sorties and hit almost 6,000 targets.
"But information and investigations are needed to explain why 72 civilians died," said Fred Abrahams, the report's principal author.
"Attacks are allowed only on military targets, and serious questions remain in some incidents about what exactly NATO forces were striking," he said.© ANP/AFP