KHORUM, Libya — The grieving mother sat on the ground rocking her 2-month old daughter under a blanket on her lap, crying softly and accepting the soft words of condolences from neighbors.
Nizha Abdel-Salam and her family say her 18-month old son Sirajuddin al-Sweisi was killed when debris pierced the wall of their home as NATO airstrikes hit an ammunition near their village of Khorum early Tuesday morning.
“The house shook and there was so much dust everywhere we couldn’t see in front of us,” she said.
The family’s account of the child’s death could not be independently confirmed. The Libyan government says more than 100 people have been killed by airstrikes since the international campaign began on March 19. It says the number includes civilians and military personnel, but it has not provided a breakdown.
Government officials have struggled to provide solid evidence of civilian deaths and have not given straight answers when asked by journalists for details to back up the claims. They have taken journalists on several escorted trips to visit locations hit in strikes, saying they would show victims, but none have had civilian casualties and some appeared to be stage-managed.
Wednesday’s government-directed trip to the tiny mountain village of Khorum, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Tripoli, was the first that presented a civilian victim, though there was no way to independently confirm that airstrikes caused the explosions at the town ammunition depot. On Tuesday, Libyan state media reported airstrikes in the area.
U.S. and European military officials have not given specific locations of strikes. U.S. and allied officials have said they have seen no credible evidence of civilian casualties from the air campaign, and they say that precision weapons are used in the strikes in an effort to prevent civilians from being hurt. The campaign has targeted military facilities around the country, as well as ground troops besieging rebel-held cities.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Abdel-Salam, 27, said the blast hit their house at around 6 a.m. Tuesday. She said she rushed to the living room where her son had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor with his father, and she saw that a hot piece of metal had embedded into the side of the child’s face.
She rushed to pick up her crying son.
“His blood was streaming down my arm,” she said Wednesday, choking back tears. “He was crying out, ‘Mama, Mama,’ reaching out with his hand to me.”
A hole was visible Wednesday piercing the outside wall of their home into their living room, and the opposite wall of the room was pockmarked with holes. Parts of the other walls had been broken off in the home, located on the third floor of a four-story building.
The boy’s uncle showed reporters a picture on his mobile phone of the baby on his deathbed. Sirajuddin’s left cheek has a deep dark brown burn mark, his body swathed in a white shroud.
“We took him to the hospital where they treated him for the burns and some broken bones,” said Abdel-Hakim al-Sweisi. “But by nightfall he was dead.”
Neighbors said they heard a large explosion early Tuesday morning and said planes were heard overhead. They said the ammunition depot, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Abdel-Salam’s home, had exploded and a number of homes were damaged by debris.
Some neighbors said there were injuries, but the only death in the town was young al-Sweisi. The impoverished village is tucked away in the mountains near the region’s main town, Gharyan, an area dotted with olive groves and grazing sheep. Its largely unpaved roads were muddy and partially flooded Wednesday from recent rains.