BRUSSELS - NATO air strikes killed 72 civilians in Libya last year, Human Rights Watch said on Monday, accusing the western alliance of failing to acknowledge the scope of collateral damage it caused during the campaign that helped oust Muammar Gaddafi.

In a report based on investigations at bombing sites during and after the conflict, the New York-based HRW said NATO strikes killed 20 women and 24 children. It called on the alliance to compensate civilian victims and investigate attacks that may have been unlawful.

"Attacks are allowed only on military targets, and serious questions remain in some incidents about what exactly NATO forces were striking," Fred Abrahams, special adviser at HRW, said in a statement.

The report claims to be the most extensive investigation to date of civilian casualties from NATO's air campaign and presents a higher death toll estimate than a March paper by Amnesty International which documented 55 civilian deaths, including 16 children and 14 women.

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