Middle East

Libya: Curious incident of the child 'air raid victim'

Baby Hanin in hospital in Tripoli, Libya (6 June 2011)
Image caption Could Hanin have been used as propaganda tool?

The official position in Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's Libya is that the foreign Press is free to report on what we like.

The reality is very different, and when reporting from the government side we have to work under extremely restrictive conditions.

Even when we are taken out beyond the confines of our luxury hotel complex by government minders to see the aftermath of Nato bombing raids, what we are presented with is impossible to verify and, frankly, sometimes difficult to believe.

On Sunday night we were taken to a Tripoli hospital. There, lying on a bed, was the unconscious form of a little girl.

Hanin, we were told - not even a year old - was the victim of a Nato bombing raid.

Secret note

As the world's media clamoured to take her picture and hear her story, a woman was ushered to her bedside and within seconds taken away again.

"That was the girl's mother," said one of several government minders in the treatment room.

Another minder was prompting a man introduced to us as the girl's uncle.

"This is what they call the protection of civilians," whispered the government man.

Image caption The girl's "uncle" later admitted he was a government employee

The same sentence was immediately repeated for the cameras by the uncle.

Ever since we had been at the site of the apparent bombing, two hours earlier, something did not feel quite right.

The bomb crater, near a smallholding on the outskirts of Tripoli, was very small and there was much less collateral damage than from other bombs I have seen in recent weeks.

Dead pigeons and a dead dog lay on the ground but there had been no mention at that point of any civilian casualties.

Our suspicions were confirmed at the end of our hospital visit when, off camera, a member of the hospital staff passed a scrap of paper to the Press.

It was a hand-written note, in English, saying the girl was in fact hurt in a car accident.

The hospital scene, it would appear, was a complete sham.

Caught in spotlight

Ushered to another, unrelated, bomb site late last night, the story unravelled even further.

There, standing at the scene of what the Libyans said was the aftermath of a Nato attack, was the girl's uncle from the hospital.

What was he doing here?

Caught in the spotlight, he acknowledged being a government employee.

Today, at a government complex in Tripoli that has been hit many times in Nato air strikes, our minders were unable to explain the curious incident of the little girl in the hospital - repeatedly ignoring our questions about the contradictions and "mistruths" we had been told.

With almost 10,000 sorties by Nato planes, it is more than probable there have been civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Living next to a military base under attack or being woken in the middle of the night by the sound of bombing must be a terrifying experience.

But the problem for international journalists working under these restrictions, is that it is often difficult to know what is the truth and what is propaganda.