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Nato probes civilian deaths claim

The new Nato commander of the international military operation in Libya has said he is looking into reports that air strikes on Tripoli have killed at least 40 civilians.

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, a Canadian now heading the international operation, noted the alleged incident happened before Nato took command on Thursday. He said: "I take every one of those issues seriously, but our mission began ... today."

The report by the Fides news agency quoted Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, the apostolic vicar of Tripoli, as saying he had learned that a building in the Buslim district collapsed because of bombing, killing 40 people.

Lt Gen Bouchard said the alliance has strict rules of engagement and is careful in going after any targets.

Nato has taken over all air operations over Libya from the United States, which had led the international force bombarding Muammar Gaddafi's forces. Lt Gen Bouchard said the transition of command had been "seamless with no gaps", and warned forces attacking civilians in Libya that they would be "ill-advised" to continue.

The operation - codenamed Unified Protector - includes enforcement of the no-fly zone, maintaining the arms embargo on Libya, and the protection of civilians from attacks by Gaddafi's military.

Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that, in line with the UN Security Council mandate, Nato's operational focus would be "on protecting civilians and civilian-populated areas against the threat of attack".

Mr Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance does not support US and British suggestions that the UN mandate of the Libya operation would allow arming the rebels. He told reporters in Stockholm that Nato's position is that "we are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the people".

Britain and the US believe that existing UN Security Council resolutions on Libya could allow for foreign governments to arm the rebels, despite an arms embargo being in place.

The Nato chief said he had "taken note of the ongoing discussions in a number of countries, but as far as Nato is concerned ... we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo".

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