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Bruised and bloodied, Libyan woman bursts in on journalists to tell of her ordeal

A woman eludes security to reach a roomful of journalists at a hotel to tell of her abduction and rape at the hands of Moammar Kadafi's forces. The reporters take notes and document her injuries before she is taken away.

March 27, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — She was panting from her scuffle with staff members when she burst into the breakfast room at the hotel where the foreign journalists were staying. Crying, she struggled to tell a story of abduction and rape at the hands of Moammar Kadafi's security forces.

"For two days! Two days! Kadafi's men did this to me," the woman screamed as she wept, holding up her black abaya to show bloody marks on her thighs, and cuts and bruises all over her body. "Look at what Kadafi's militia did to me!"

Reporters pulled out their notebooks and cameras and began taking photos. Then, previously courteous hotel employees and surly plainclothes security officials lurking in the lobby pounced, sparking an hourlong melee.

There was no way to verify the woman's story. But the episode revealed the barely repressed brutality of a regime attempting to put on its best face for outsiders as it endures a bombing campaign meant to halt its offensives against rebels in the east.

Photos: Libyan uprising retakes Ajdabiya

Journalists wondered how the woman managed to enter a hotel under constant watch by security forces. After scuffling to get into the breakfast lounge, the woman broke away from hotel staff members and sat with reporters. She calmed down and began telling her story.

She was a resident of the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi, she said, and was detained near a military base on Salahadin Road outside Tripoli several days ago and jailed with a dozen other people.

"I was stopped at a checkpoint and held by men for two days and abused," she said. "I was handcuffed."

After two days of torture and rape in a prison, she said, she managed to secure the cheap black abaya she was wearing and sneak away. But the others are still there, she said.

Security officials in leather jackets, "volunteer" interpreters working with the Western journalists and even servers at the hotel restaurant tried to coax the woman away. When she refused, they began ferociously grabbing at her. One woman wielded a knife from the kitchen and menaced her.

"Why are you doing this?" she screamed at the distraught woman.

A scar-faced minder who often tangles with journalists pulled at her violently.

Beefy men tried to stop journalists from filming the chaos. One pointed a handgun at a television crew. Others pulled away and smashed a CNN camera worth about $6,000 while security officials kicked journalists in an attempt to wrest away recording equipment.

"She's a drunk," said one of the volunteer interpreters, who has been offering black-market alcoholic beverages to women in the hotel for weeks.

After an hourlong scuffle and negotiations involving the woman, hotel staff members and various security officials, she was dragged away screaming, with a gaggle of journalists following along.

"They say they're taking me to a hospital, but they're taking me to prison," she cried out. "Look at me! Look at me! The people's militia did this to me."

Journalists tried to protect her but were pushed away.

"Are you OK?" one asked her.

"No," she replied in English, just before she was dragged into a car, which sped away.

Journalists sought assurances from Libyan officials that no harm would come to her.

"I understand that she's drunk, and she seems to be suffering mentally," Musa Ibrahim, a government spokesman, told reporters. "Her safety, of course, is guaranteed, not because you're journalists, but because she's a Libyan citizen, if that's what she is."

Saturday night, after the extraordinary video was broadcast on television channels across the globe, Ibrahim sheepishly retracted his accusations about the woman and said he would allow journalists to interview her in coming days.

"I assure you that she's safe and secure," he said. "All legal help is being offered to her. The woman claims she was kidnapped and raped, and it's being investigated to the full extent of the law.

"We think it's not a political case. It's a legal case."

Photos: Libyan uprising retakes Ajdabiya

daragahi@latimes.com

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