ABEN HUBBARD, KARIN LAUB
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Retreating loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi killed scores of detainees and arbitrarily shot civilians over the past week, as rebel forces extended their control over the Libyan capital, survivors and a human rights group said Sunday.
In one case, Gadhafi fighters opened fire and hurled grenades at more than 120 civilians huddling in a hangar used as a makeshift lockup near a military base, said Mabrouk Abdullah, 45, who escaped with a bullet wound in his side. Some 50 charred corpses were still scattered across the hangar on Sunday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the evidence it has collected so far “strongly suggests that Gadhafi government forces went on a spate of arbitrary killing as Tripoli was falling.” The justice minister in the rebels’ interim government, Mohammed al-Alagi, said the allegations would be investigated and leaders of Gadhafi’s military units put on trial.
So far, there have been no specific allegations of atrocities carried out by rebel fighters, though human rights groups are continuing to investigate some unsolved cases.
AP reporters have witnessed several episodes of rebels mistreating detainees or sub-Saharan Africans suspected of being hired Gadhafi guns. Earlier this week, rebels and their supporters did not help eight wounded men, presumably Gadhafi fighters, who were stranded in a bombed out fire station in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighborhood, some pleading for water.
Najib Barakat, the health minister in the rebels’ interim government, said Sunday that he does not yet have a death toll for the weeklong battle for Tripoli. Hundreds have died and more bodies, some in advanced stages of decay, are still being retrieved from the streets.q
Barakat said efforts are being made to identify bodies. At the least, the corpses of suspected Gadhafi fighters, especially non-Libyans, are being photographed before burial, to allow for possible future identification by relatives.
In fighting late Sunday, pro-Gadhafi elements fired Grad rockets at rebel forces gathering in the town of Nawfaliyah, not far from Gadhafi’s home town of Sirte, rebels said.
Rebels gave residents there 10 days to allow rebel forces in peacefully or face an assault. A rebel spokesman said many Gadhafi loyalists have fled to Sirte and are preparing for a fierce battle.
Rebels rode into Tripoli a week ago, then fought fierce battles with Gadhafi forces, especially at the former Libyan leader’s Bab al-Aziziya compound and the Abu Salim neighborhood, a regime stronghold.
As the rebels consolidated their control and Gadhafi fighters fled, reports of atrocities began emerging over the weekend.
Human Rights Watch said it has evidence indicating regime troops killed at least 17 detainees in an improvised lockup, a building of Libya’s internal security service, in the Gargur neighborhood of Tripoli. A doctor who examined the corpses said about half had been shot in the back of the head and that abrasions on ankles and wrists suggested they had been bound.
The group spoke to Osama Al-Swayi who had been detained there, along with 24 others.
On Aug. 21, detainees heard rebels advancing and shouting “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is great” he told Human Rights Watch.
“We were so happy, and we knew we would be released soon,” he said. “Snipers were upstairs; then they came downstairs and started shooting. An old man (and another person) were shot outside our door. (The rest of us) ran out because they opened the door and said, “Quickly, quickly, go out.”
He said the soldiers told them to lie on the ground. He said he heard one soldier saying, “Just finish them off.” Four soldiers fired at the detainees.
“I was near the corner and got hit in the right hand, the right foot and the right shoulder. In one instant, they finished off all the people with me. … No one was breathing. Some of them had head wounds,” he told the rights group.
Gadhafi forces set up another detention center in a hangar near their Yarmouk military base in southern Tripoli.
Abdullah, who was at the hangar Sunday, said he had survived a massacre there last week. He said he had been detained in the city of Zlitan to the east on Aug. 16 and was brought to the hangar with other civilian captives. All were beaten and tortured, he said.
“They didn’t even ask us questions,” he said, “They just beat us and called us rats.”
On Tuesday, he said, more than 120 prisoners were in the hangar when a soldier told them they’d be released at dusk, Abdullah said. A short time later, guards hurled hand grenades inside, then opened fire. He was shot and wounded in his side, but fled the hanger. He hid outside when soldiers returned and fired on other survivors. When they left, he escaped.
Ahmed Mohammed, 25, also said he survived the massacre and told a similar story. Neither knew how many had been killed nor how and when the bodies had been burned.
Amnesty International spoke to another survivor, Hussein al-Lafi, who said three of his brothers were killed that day.
“They (the guards) immediately opened fire, and I saw one of them holding a hand grenade. Seconds later, I heard an explosion, followed by four more. I fell on the ground face down. Others fell on top of me and I could feel their warm blood … People were screaming and there were many more rounds of fire.”
On Wednesday, guards at a Gadhafi military base in the Tripoli suburb of Qasr Ben Ghashir shot dead five prisoners held in solitary confinement, Amnesty said, citing survivors. Other detainees panicked and broke out of their cells when they heard the shots, survivors said. By that time, the guards had fled, the report said.
In addition to the killings at detention centers, Human Rights Watch said it collected testimony about Gadhafi soldiers randomly shooting civilians. In one incident, on Wednesday, medical lab technician Salah Kikli said he saw Gadhafi fighters pull two unarmed men, including one in medical scrubs, from an ambulance and kill them.
Al-Alagi, the justice minister, said the reported atrocities did not come as a surprise because the regime acted in a brutal manner in the past. He said that the justice system would have to be “cleansed” before investigations can begin.
It remains unclear who is responsible for some of the other killings, including of dozens of dark-skinned men whose bodies were found in two areas of Tripoli.
Reporters saw bodies in advanced stages of decomposition at Abu Salim hospital, including in the parking lot, a ward and in the basement. Barakat, the health minister, said a total of 75 corpses were found at the hospital.
Another group of bodies was strewn across a roundabout near Bab al-Aziziya, Gadhafi’s compound. Five were in a field clinic, housed in a tent, and one of the corpses still had an IV sticking in his right arm.
Human Rights Watch counted a total of 29 bodies in that area, where Gadhafi loyalists, many from sub-Saharan Africa, had camped out in recent months. The group said it was not yet clear who was responsible for the deaths.
Some rebel fighters have mistreated detainees, pushing or hitting them, though others have tried to stop abuse. In many cases, wounded rebels and regime fighters were treated side-by-side in rebel-controlled hospitals.
On Sunday, in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, rebels apprehended a dozen black men and accused them of being mercenaries in Gadhafi’s army. The detainees were occasionally punched before one of the rebels convinced his comrades the men were just migrant workers.
William Osas, a 32-year-old Nigerian, said he and other Africans had fled to a farm nearby to escape the fighting, and the men were detained while they were looking for food. Reporters from The Associated Press visited the farm and found hundreds of Africans living there, including many women.