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A rebellion divided: spectre of revenge killings hangs over eastern Libya

Uthman Suleiman, 32, who describes himself as a security chief for the rebel city of Al Bayda, holds up war trophies captured from pro-Gadhafi fighters in the early days of the revolution. (Graeme Smith for The Globe and Mail)

Libyan rebels hanged at least two suspected pro-Gadhafi fighters in the chaotic early days of the uprising, witnesses say, revealing for the first time a bitter struggle within the rebellion about how to contain the anger unleashed after decades of oppression.

The full extent of revenge killings in eastern Libya is unknown. Near the coastal city of Darna, locals say they discovered a heap of bodies in the badlands south of town, where at least a dozen men appeared to have been executed with gunshots to the head. But the circumstances of those deaths remain unclear.

Doctors at four rebel-controlled medical facilities say they struggled – and failed on at least one occasion – to prevent mobs from killing patients accused of loyalty to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.

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The arguments over the fate of suspected pro-Gadhafi prisoners, whether in the emergency wards of Al Bayda or among screaming crowds in Darna, illustrate the tension between educated leaders and fiery young people that has emerged as a defining feature of the rebellion.

The New York Times quoted anonymous U.S. officials this week saying they have cautioned the rebels against harming civilians, even suggesting that air strikes could target anti-Gadhafi forces if they fail to respect the laws of armed conflict.

The actions of those who desperately tried to save the lives of pro-Gadhafi prisoners weren't motivated merely by the fact that such revenge killings would sap the rebels' international support. More fundamentally, they felt themselves fighting for the soul of the revolution.

Abdul Karim bin Taher, a 60-year-old English teacher, stood in the shadow of a rusty pedestrian bridge in Darna where he saw revolutionaries hang a man on Feb. 23 and recalled how he tried to stop the murder, pleading with the crowd to avoid becoming like Col. Gadhafi's thugs.

"If we do the same things he did, what's the difference between them and us?" he said.

Ultimately, moderates such as Mr. bin Taher appear to have gained the upper hand after the initial burst of violence in towns along Libya's eastern coast, with most stories of revenge killings confined to the first week of the revolution.

Those captured by the rebels remain in grave danger, however. Hospitals sheltering injured pro-Gadhafi fighters must keep them hidden and guarded. At one medical facility, on a quiet floor, a handwritten sign in Arabic – "Closed for repairs" – marks the secret door leading to the prisoners.

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A guard carrying two Kalashnikov rifles banged on the door, and other gunmen inside confirmed the guard's identity before removing a metal bar and allowing visitors inside. Past the barred door, a series of locked rooms contained suspected pro-Gadhafi fighters recovering from their injuries.

Now safely in the hands of rebels who appear to respect human rights, the patients said they were eating well and were being treated kindly. One of them sat in a wheelchair and seemed incapable of speaking for himself, babbling softly in confused sentences. A rebel gunman kissed him on the forehead, a gesture of affection.

"The revolutionaries tried to hang him," said a young attendant in a white doctor's coat. "The rope broke. They thought he was dead, so they put him in the freezer. He is still alive, but his brain is not working."

Medical records confirmed that the man arrived at the hospital unconscious, showing signs of strangulation, but other details of his story were unclear. A day after his first contact with journalists, rebels transferred him to another location.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said he is familiar with the man's case. "It's quite sensitive," he said. "He is a witness to a mass execution."

Other such incidents have occurred since the beginning of the revolution, Mr. Bouckaert said.

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"There were quite a number of cases of hangings," he said. "A lot of unruly armed elements detain people on their own initiative, without proper oversight."

The two most public executions, with hundreds of witnesses, allegedly happened in the early morning of Feb. 18 in the city of Al Bayda, and on the evening of Feb. 23 in the smaller city of Darna. In both cases, witnesses say, a mob lynched a dark-skinned soldier suspected of being an African mercenary.

Paranoia about mercenaries remains strong among the rebels, despite assurances from human-rights groups that most of the fighters among the pro-Gadhafi forces are Libyan citizens. Rebels have frequently treated dark-skinned prisoners more harshly than men of Arab ancestry.

That distinction was made brutally obvious to doctors at the intensive care unit of Al Bayda's main hospital on Feb. 17 when they admitted two men – one black, the other with the local olive-skinned complexion – who stood accused of fighting the rebels. A crowd gathered outside the hospital, calling for blood. Some armed rebels pushed their way into the ward.

"They had guns and knives," said Mahmoud Anass, 27, a resident on duty that night. "It was really scary. They wanted to kill the black soldier."

Doctors managed to hold off the enraged youths until a few hours after midnight, when the rebels dragged the two patients into the street.

"An old man tried to stop them," said Faraj Khalifa, a doctor. "He said our religion does not permit the killing of unarmed men. But the youths were very, very angry. They hanged the black man in front of the hospital."

The patient with lighter skin was beaten, shot, and returned to the emergency room, Dr. Khalifa said.

A cellphone video later circulated among residents showing a Christian cross tattooed on a black man. Locals pronounced this as proof that the hanged man, whom they called "John," had been a non-Muslim outsider.

Not everybody agrees that John was lynched. A female doctor claimed that the man died of his wounds before he was hanged, although she acknowledged that she did not see the incident herself.

Rebel officials deny the story, or remain vague about it. "We had no hangings," said Uthman Suleiman, 32, who describes himself as a security chief for the rebels, sitting in a room filled with war trophies, weapons and ammunition. "No, no, no, it's all rumours."

The main spokesman for Al Bayda's rebel council, Mohammed Mabrouk, said he saw John in intensive care at the hospital but did not know what happened to him.

The rebel military says it has not killed any prisoners. "I don' know about any executions," said Ahmad Zine Al-Abedine, chief military prosecutor, while cautioning that he could speak with confidence only about the rebels' actions in Benghazi, not further up the coast in Al Bayda or Darna. "Maybe it's just a rumour," he said.

During a visit to the rebels' main jail on Monday in Benghazi, guards said they were holding about 76 prisoners suspected of involvement with pro-Gadhafi forces – with more arriving all the time, as fighting continues.

The chief prosecutor promised that all of them would receive a fair trial, with defence lawyers, after the fall of the Gadhafi regime.

Such formal systems did not exist in the turbulent early days of the uprising, however, when justice was meted out by whomever won the argument with gunmen in the street. This produced wildly different outcomes for the various pro-Gadhafi groups captured by the rebels. More than 160 of the soldiers who fought the rebellion during several days of bloody standoff at the airport south of Darna were eventually released after ceasefire talks brokered by respected elders.

Before the ceasefire, however, a group of 22 soldiers who broke through the rebels' barricades near the airport on Feb. 23 seem to have fared worse. Residents say the soldiers climbed into three pickup trucks and raced down the highway that winds down the cliffs toward Darna, blasting their way through a rebel encampment along the way. Two revolutionaries were killed.

The surviving rebels called ahead to warn the city of an impending attack. Locals say that a rebel commander named Abdul Hakim Al-Hasadi organized an ambush near the outskirts; the 45-year-old had quickly become a prominent figure among the rebels because of his expertise in guerrilla warfare, which he received at training camps in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2002. (In an earlier interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Al-Hasadi declined to say who operated his training camp; al-Qaeda ran camps in the same part of Afghanistan during that period.)

The rebels caught all 22 soldiers and started transporting them in pickup trucks back to Darna; although seven leapt from the back of the trucks they were recaptured the next morning in a neighbouring village. The remaining 15 arrived at the central mosque in Darna, where a large crowed gathered and called for their execution.

"We were screaming, 'Please don't do this,'" said Jamal El-Magri, 48, a veterinarian who now serves on Darna's rebel council. "My own cousin was killed at the airport, but I'm a Muslim and I must respect the prisoners of war."

Mr. El-Magri said a group of educated men tried to shelter the prisoners inside the mosque and planned to disperse them among safe houses with families in the city. Most of them were bundled into vehicles and kept away from the mob, he said, but men in the crowed snatched one of them from the back of a pickup truck. He saw them hang him with rope from a green pedestrian bridge near the mosque.

Families that sheltered the prisoners that night remain afraid to speak to the media, fearing retribution. Abdel Gadir, 29, said one of his friends took in a group of prisoners and soon found it difficult to keep them.

"His door alarm rang in the middle of the night," Mr. Gadir said. "Men with guns were in the road with covered faces. They told him, 'Give us those criminals.'"

The masked men took away the prisoners. The next day, Mr. Gadir said he returned home in the evening to his village of Makhtuba, 20 kilometres east of Darna, and found his neighbours upset. They had discovered a pile of bodies, apparently executed with gunshots, at a nearby crossroads known as Hisha.

"My friend said, 'Our revolution has taken a wrong turn,'" Mr. Gadir said. "Each of the bodies had a bullet in the head."

A local mullah organized a team of men and a backhoe to bury the corpses, he said. None of them were willing to talk about the incident on Friday, although a freshly heaped pile of earth remains at the crossroads in the barren scrubland. Graffiti scrawled on a nearby wall marks the spot as a resting place for soldiers "killed by Gadhafi," an explanation repeated by some others in Darna. They claim the executed men were killed by their own officers for disobeying orders.

No organized units of pro-Gadhafi forces existed at that location by the time of the apparent killings, however, which supports Mr. Gadir's belief that they were executed by rebels.

Whatever truths remain buried under the dusty earth, locals say the community has reacted with horror to the excesses of the revolution's initial days. During the Friday prayers after the hanging, clerics spoke out against extra-judicial killings. City leaders have recently asked Mr. Al-Hasadi, the guerrilla expert with experience in Afghanistan, to take a less prominent role in local defences.

"Now that we have freedom," Mr. Gadir said, "we don't want to make the same mistakes again."

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