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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The First Libyan Civil War

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the First Libyan Civil War.

When did this conflict occur?

19th March, 2011^ – 31st October, 2011*

^ Though the 19th of March, 2011, marks the official commencement of the NATO-led military intervention in Libya, UN Resolution 1973, authorising the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilian populated areas in the country, was passed two days earlier on the 17th of March. [1]

*- Though British involvement in Libya under Operation Ellamy ended in October of 2011, members of the British military remained engaged in the country as part of continued operations against elements of the Islamic State [2]

What is the political, economic, social or historical background to this conflict?

As a wave of protests erupted against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East and North Africa in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011, demonstrations against the regime of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, which had begun in early February of 2011, escalated on the 15th as anti-government mobs clashed with Libyan police in the city of Benghazi. [3] A national “Day of Rage” held two days later on the 17th of February saw protests spread throughout Libya, as anti-regime elements sought to emphasise formation of a united front against Gaddafi. [4] Libyan police and military forces responded with violence, and armed conflict soon embroiled the country, with opposition forces seizing control of Libya’s second most populous city, the vital seaport of Benghazi. The international community decried Gaddafi’s crackdown on civilian demonstrators and moved quickly to launch non-combatant evacuation operations to remove diplomatic missions and expatriate citizens, as fighting escalated in early March. [5] Despite capitalising on the momentum and surprise afforded by the uprisings, opposition forces had lost ground to the Gaddafi regime, when, on the 17th of March, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 and called for the use of “all necessary measures” to protect Libya’s civilian populace. [6] Two days later, the NATO-led intervention began, as aircraft from the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other NATO partners began enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya and striking key regime targets in support of opposition forces. In July, the international community recognised the opposition National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya, and, by August, the tide of the First Libyan Civil War had largely turned due to rebel ground advances as well as a relentless multinational air campaign. Gaddafi himself was captured and killed by NTC fighters in his hometown of Sirte on the 20th of October, and, one week later, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to end NATO’s mandate for military action in Libya.  [7]

What role did British military forces play?

The British military effort in the First Libyan Civil War was referred to as Operation Ellamy and saw the engagement of approximately 4,000 personnel, 37 aircraft and ten Royal Navy vessels in an effort to protect the civilian populace in Libya. RAF Tornados played key roles in the NATO air campaign, striking key regime troop concentrations, equipment, and communications nodes in support of opposition forces on the ground; simultaneously, E3-D Sentry and Nimrod aircraft provided airborne command and control to facilitate the execution of strike packages, while C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft established a daily airbridge between the UK and the NATO operational command in Italy. [8] At sea, Royal Navy craft worked closely alongside their US and French counterparts, with British and American submarines firing a coordinated salvo of 112 Tomahawk Land Attack cruise missiles at predetermined targets in preparation for the arrival of French aircraft in Libyan airspace. [9] The British ground component of Operation Ellamy was, itself, limited and centred almost exclusively around elements of UK Special Forces; in one infamous and widely publicised incident, a joint team of officers from the Secret Intelligence Service and members of the 22nd Special Air Service were arrested in Benghazi. [10] Tasked with establishing relations with rebel factions operating near the vital seaport, the eight-man team, of whom six belonged to the highly sensitive E Squadron tasked with providing covert support to the UK’s intelligence community, landed by Chinook but were arrested almost immediately by local forces under the suspicion of being foreign mercenaries. [11] The team was soon released, and, though British intelligence and special operations forces continued liaising with opposition elements in Libya, the incident highlighted the inherent difficulties posed by the country’s complex web of sub-state armed groups. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

No, a total number of civilian deaths due to British military action cannot be determined. In contrast, one British servicemember died in the conflict, with no deaths being due to hostile action. [12]

Are there any trends or particular incidents of note?

A Freedom of Information Act request made by Action on Armed Violence to the Ministry of Defence was returned with the response that “there has been no credible evidence to suggest that UK strikes caused any civilian fatalities. Both the UK and NATO committed to the UN mandate to protect civilians. Therefore, operations were only conducted against legitimate military targets and with the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties at all times.” It was noted, however, that NATO assumed responsibility for an airstrike which resulted in the accidental death of a civilian family, with no further details provided. [13]

A subsequent May 2012 report by the Human Rights Watch affirmed that an estimated 72 noncombatants were killed as a result of NATO airstrikes in Libya, with one third of these fatalities being children under the age of 18. [14] Given the sheer quantity of ordinance employed by the RAF as part of Operation Ellamy, which saw more than 2100 strike sorties flown, it remains improbable that no civilian casualties are attributed to British military action. [15] The absence of further data on these strikes, however, in addition to an apparent lack of internal inquiries conducted by NATO forces, precludes this report from assigning a specific figure of noncombatant deaths as a result of the British military.


[1] Security Council Resolution 1973, United Nations Security Council, 2011,

[2] Knowles, Emily and Abigail Watson. All Quiet on the ISIS Front? British Secret Warfare in an Information Age (London: Remote Control, 2017): 19.

[3] Violent protests rock Libyan city of Benghazi, France24, 2011,

[4] Ian Black, “Libya’s day of rage met by bullets and loyalists,” The Guardian, 2011,

[5] Mueller, Karl P., “Appendix A: Timeline of Events in Libya,” in Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War (California: RAND Corporation, 2015): 393.

[6] Security Council authorizes ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians in Libya, United Nations, 2011,

[7] UN Security Council votes to end Libya operations, BBC News, 2011,

[8] Ministry of Defence, “The UK’s contribution to freeing Libya,” Gov.UK, 2012,–2

[9] Goulter, Christina, “The British Experience: Operation Ellamy,” In Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War, edited by Christina Goulter et al. (California: RAND Corporation, 2015): 158. 

[10] Martin Chulov, “SAS and MI6 officers released by Libya’s rebel commanders,” The Guardian, 2011,

[11] Mark Urban, “Inside story of the UK’s secret mission to beat Gaddafi,” BBC News, 2012,

[12] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021,

[13] See FOIA response

[14] Ministry of Defence, “The UK’s contribution to freeing Libya,” 2012.

[15] Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya, Human Rights Watch, 2012,