|As rebels capture towns destruction follows|
By C. J. Chivers, The New York Times, July 12, 2011
ZINTAN, Libya — Rebels in the mountains in Libya’s west have looted and damaged four towns seized since last month from the forces of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, part of a series of abuses and apparent reprisals against suspected loyalists that have chased residents of these towns away, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The looting included many businesses and at least two medical centers that, like the towns, are now deserted and bare.
Rebel fighters also beat people suspected of being loyalists and burned their homes, the organization said.
The towns that have suffered the abuses are Qawalish, which rebels seized last week, Awaniya, Rayaniyah and Zawiyat al-Bagul, which fell to the rebels last month. Some of the abuses, Human Rights Watch said, were directed against members of the Mashaashia tribe, which has long supported Colonel Qaddafi.
The organization’s findings come as support for the war has waned in Europe and in Washington, where Republicans and Democrats alike have questioned American participation on budgetary and legal grounds.
They also raise the prospect that the NATO-backed rebel advances, which have stalled or slowed to a crawl, risk being accompanied by further retaliatory crimes that could inflame tribal or factional grievances, endangering the civilians that NATO was mandated to protect.
Rebel officials in the mountains have played down the looting and arson in recent days. In an interview on Sunday, Col. Mukhtar Farnana, the region’s senior commander, said that reprisals were not sanctioned and that he did not know any details about them.
But Human Rights Watch said the same commander shared details with its investigators and conceded that rebels had abused people suspected of being collaborators as towns changed hands.
“People who stayed in the towns were working with the army,” the organization quoted him as saying. “Houses that were robbed and broken into were ones that the army had used, including for ammunition storage.” The commander added, “Those people who were beaten were working for Qaddafi’s brigades.”
He also said that his forces were under orders not to loot, and that if it were not for those orders “people would have burned these towns down to the ground.”
A rebel near Qawalish on Tuesday confirmed Colonel Farnana’s view, saying that the rebels had instructions not to “break anything or burn houses,” but that orders ran up against the realities of waging war with a nonprofessional, quasi-military force.
“Before we liberate an area, we do have intelligence information about the people who were helping the army in the local town,” said the rebel, Hatam Idris. “So we do know these people, and their homes. And when we liberate a town, we go straightaway to those homes.”
The houses often have ammunition or weapons in them, he said, and often are ransacked and burned. “Some people do this individually,” he said.
He described steps that might protect the homes as impractical, given the rebel army’s structure and limited manpower. “We can’t just keep guarding and looking after these homes,” he said.
Colonel Farnana said that some rebels had been arrested and punished for these crimes. His claim could not immediately be confirmed.
Rebel conduct in the war has been mixed. Many captured pro-Qaddafi soldiers have received medical treatment in rebel hospitals and have been kept in detention centers that nongovernment organizations have been allowed to visit.
But Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers have also been beaten at the point of capture, and some have been shot, including several prisoners in the besieged city of Misurata who were shot through the feet, either as a punishment or as a means to prevent escape.
Rebels have also been seen by journalists repeatedly firing makeshift rocket launchers indiscriminately into territory or towns held by the Qaddafi forces.
Such rebels actions, however, have paled next to the abuses of Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, which have fired on unarmed demonstrators and used artillery, rocket batteries and mortars against many rebel-held cities and towns.
Phones taken from dead or wounded soldiers have yielded images that strongly suggested that some of Colonel Qaddafi’s units have executed detainees.
The colonel’s forces have also ransacked and looted homes and businesses on many fronts throughout the war.
Rebels repeatedly cited the army’s abuses when discussing the ransacking of the recently looted towns.
Some of the results of rebel advances were visible in the past week in three abandoned villages that rebels call liberated. In two of them — Qawalish and Awaniya — shops had been looted. All of the residents were gone.
Hours before Human Rights Watch released its findings, and urged rebel authorities to respect and protect civilians and their property, another grim scene emerged between the villages of Um al-Jersan and Qawalish.
In a deep concrete basin related to the region’s water pipeline, at least five bodies were found rotting in a heap. Three cloth bindings were on the ground near them, as if some of them had had their arms or legs bound.
The dead men appeared to be wearing green military uniforms, and to have been killed and hidden some time ago. Several pistol and rifle cartridges littered the ground nearby, and local residents pointed to a mound of rocks and freshly turned dirt and said another rotting body was buried there.
It was not clear if the men had been killed by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, by rebels or someone else. Nor was it clear why they had been hidden from view.