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Libyan rebels appear to take leaf from Kadafi's playbook

Opposition officials in Benghazi, whose wide sweeps to detain alleged Kadafi supporters have drawn criticism, take journalists on a tightly controlled tour of detention centers. Many detainees say they're immigrant workers and deny fighting for Kadafi.

March 24, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Detainees of the rebel government in Benghazi are housed at a former Kadafi regime security complex.
Detainees of the rebel government in Benghazi are housed at a former Kadafi… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — The rebels of eastern Libya have found much to condemn about the police state tactics of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi: deep paranoia, mass detentions, secret prisons and tightly scripted media tours.

But some of those same tactics appear to be creeping into the efforts of the opposition here as it seeks to stamp out lingering loyalty to Kadafi. Rebel forces are detaining anyone suspected of serving or assisting the Kadafi regime, locking them up in the same prisons once used to detain and torture Kadafi's opponents.

For a month, gangs of young gunmen have roamed the city, rousting Libyan blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa from their homes and holding them for interrogation as suspected mercenaries or government spies.

Over the last several days, the opposition has begun rounding up men accused of fighting as mercenaries for Kadafi's militias as government forces pushed toward Benghazi. It has launched nightly manhunts for about 8,000 people named as government operatives in secret police files seized after internal security operatives fled in the face of the rebellion that ended Kadafi's control of eastern Libya last month.

"We know who they are," said Abdelhafed Ghoga, the chief opposition spokesman. He called them "people with bloodstained hands" and "enemies of the revolution."

Any suspected Kadafi loyalist or spy who does not surrender, Ghoga warned, will face revolutionary "justice."

Photos: A meeting with prisoners held by rebels in Libya

Rebels have also detained scores of Libyans they say were captured during battles with government forces in the last week or so.

On Wednesday, 55 terrified detainees were paraded in front of a busload of international journalists.

It was the first time the opposition's month-old transitional national council had organized such a controlled bus tour, and it featured some of the same restrictions placed on journalists taken on tours in Tripoli by the Kadafi regime: no interviews and no close-up photographs of prisoners.

Photos: U.S., allies strike targets in Libya from air, sea

Opposition officials who herded journalists on trips to two former internal security complexes said the restrictions were based on international conventions that prohibit public displays of prisoners of war.

The prisoners and detainees were hauled out of dank cells that stank of urine and rot — the same cells that once housed some of the dissidents now aligned with the rebel movement, known as the Feb. 17 Revolution.

But when a rowdy mass of photographers and reporters rushed the prisoners and began snapping photos and shouting questions, the carefully staged event collapsed in chaos. Soon opposition officials were hauling out prisoners for interviews and photos, all the while shouting down the detainees when they proclaimed their innocence.

One young man from Ghana bolted from the prisoners queue. He shouted in English at an American reporter: "I'm not a soldier! I work for a construction company in Benghazi! They took me from my house … "

A guard shoved the prisoner back toward the cells.

"Go back inside!" he ordered.

The guard turned to the reporter and said: "He lies. He's a mercenary."

The Ghanaian was one of 25 detainees from Chad, Niger, Sudan, Mali and Ghana described by opposition officials as mercenaries, though several of them insisted they were laborers. The officials declined to say what would become of them.

The opposition has acknowledged detaining an unspecified number of sub-Saharan Africans on suspicion of serving as Kadafi mercenaries. Human Rights Watch has described a concerted campaign in which thousands of men have been driven from their homes in eastern Libya and beaten or arrested.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for the rights group in Libya, said he had been promised access to the detainees and prisoners put on display Wednesday.

Another 30 men who were paraded about were described as Libyan soldiers captured in the last week or so. Some were said to have served in the armored column that was demolished by allied airstrikes on the outskirts of Benghazi over the weekend.

"These are the people who came to kill us," said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman for the council, gazing on the detainees with contempt.

Asked whether some of the accused might indeed be foreign construction workers, Bani replied: "We are not in paradise here. Do you think they're going to admit they are mercenaries? We know they are, of course."

Bani said nightly raids to detain men named in the internal security files had intensified in recent days and would continue "until we get them all."

One of the accused shown to journalists was Alfusainey Kambi, 53, a disheveled Gambian wearing a bloodstained sport shirt and military fatigue trousers. He said he had been dragged from his home and beaten by three armed men who he said also raped his wife. A dirty bandage covered a wound on his forehead.

Khaled Ben Ali, a volunteer with the opposition council, berated Kambi and accused him of lying. Ali said Kambi hit his head on a wall while trying to escape.

He commanded the prisoner to comment on his treatment in the detention center.

Kambi paused and considered his answer. Finally, he glanced warily up at Ali and spoke.

"Nobody beat me here," he said in a faint, weary tone. "I have no problems here."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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