Fighters for the transitional government in Libya take cover in Surt. (Philippe Desmazes, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Surt, Libya — The remains of more than two dozen men lay facedown in the dirt, their hands bound behind them. Plastic cuffs cut into the flesh of their wrists; bullet holes riddled their blood-spattered backs.
According to fighters for Libya's transitional government who say they found the corpses last week, the men were recent victims of supporters of ousted Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi. The fighters say all were executed by loyalist forces in a paroxysm of revenge and fury as former rebels advanced into the crumbling Kadafi stronghold of Surt.
Similar killings continue, say the fighters and others backing Libya's transitional government, even as Kadafi troops in Surt, and the remnants of the longtime regime, are in the midst of their death throes.
Pro-Kadafi forces have continued their stiff resistance in Surt, Kadafi's hometown and long his showcase city, as their territory shrinks to a few small pockets of the seaside city. Yet even as they retreat, the pro-Kadafi gunmen may still be executing those suspected of opposing the former leader, according to revolutionary forces.
"They are not bothering to put them in prison any more: If they think you are against Kadafi they kill you," said Anis Faraj, 22, who said he was first imprisoned by the pro-Kadafi forces, then dragooned into working alongside them in seeking out "rats" — as those suspected of being traitors to the leader were known.
There is no direct proof tying Kadafi forces to the apparent massacre in the semirural outskirts of Surt. What exactly happened to these men may never be known. However, the accounts of Faraj and at least one other ex-prisoner could shed some light on their fate.
Libya's transitional government says that in the days before Tripoli and other towns fell to the advancing rebels, Kadafi forces executed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of prisoners in the capital and elsewhere. Several mass graves have already been discovered.
Here in Surt, the state of decomposition of the 42 bodies first found at the site indicated that the men had been killed before anti-Kadafi forces moved in, said Dr. Abdul Rauf bin Yousef, a doctor who examined the corpses. Some of the bodies were removed before journalists arrived.
Faraj said he was among those imprisoned after pro-Kadafi volunteers found him last month shirking military service, hiding with family members in the nearby town of Abu Hadi. He said he spent three weeks in a small, dungeon-like cell inside the Surt police station. According to his account, 46 other men — all suspected "rats," or traitors to the Kadafi cause — also were held in the lockup.
In recent days, as anti-Kadafi forces advanced, Faraj said, guards told the prisoners that Mutassim Kadafi — the former leader's son long rumored to be in charge of Surt's defense — "wanted the disloyal rats from the prison." As a result, the jail was cleared out.
"They lined us up, all 47 men outside with our back to four armed guards," said Faraj, who added that he and the others, bound with plastic handcuffs, feared they were to be executed. Instead, "they shot their weapons around our feet."
Most of the terrified prisoners were then bundled into pickup trucks and driven away, Faraj said. But he said he was held back after a guard recognized him as a colleague from the military air base in Misurata.
"He took me to his house, gave me a Kalashnikov and told me to continue the hunt for the 'rats' with them," Faraj said.
The gesture, he said, probably saved his life. Faraj believes the other prisoners were almost certainly executed.
For three days, before his subsequent escape across the front lines, Faraj said, he worked alongside the Kadafi loyalists. He and other gunmen, he said, were tasked with hunting down those suspected of wavering loyalty. Once captured, he said, their fate was sealed.
"Anyone who does not support them is taken away," Faraj said. "Soldiers I was with spoke of taking opposition members to the beachfront to kill them."
Last week, Faraj was shown video images of some of the men found dead in the fields outside Surt. He said he had shared a cell with several of them. One was a prayer leader.
"Sheik Abdullah Farjan would lead our prayers in prison," he said, referring to the videotaped image of a man who lay dead, his long silk robes bloodstained from bullet wounds. "He had been thrown in jail for speaking out against Kadafi on a recorded tape," Faraj said.
Faraj listed the names of other victims. Some matched those separately identified by another former prisoner.
Word of the presence of bodies prompted some families to risk coming to the hazardous front lines to seek their missing sons and fathers, husbands and fiances.
The bodies, bloated and disfigured after several days in the sun, were left in three piles, scattered across farmland. A group of eight lay beside a storage building. Nine others were found on a dirt track. The third group lay in a field close to where ferocious fighting still raged; rocket-propelled grenades exploded overhead.
Clutching clothing to their mouths because of the overpowering stench, the family of Ahmed Zain peeled back the fly-ridden blankets that covered the bodies, revealing the victims' faces.
Adel Zain came to look for his missing brother, Ahmed. Pro-Kadafi gunmen came to his brother's home in Surt's District 1 and took him away to the police prison, Zain said.
But Ahmed Zain's remains were not among the dead found here. He may still be alive, his brother rationalized, or his remains may lie elsewhere, as yet undiscovered.
Sherlock is a special correspondent