(Ras Ijdir, Tunisia) - Libyan security forces and pro-government groups in the western city of Zawiyah have violently attacked anti-government protesters and Egyptian migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said today.
Hundreds of Egyptian migrants crossed the border into Tunisia on February 25, 2011, joining thousands of other migrants who had been stranded there for three days awaiting assistance, Human Rights Watch said.
"West of Tripoli in Zawiyah city, government security forces firing on demonstrators are causing bloodshed and chaos," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Pro-Gaddafi thugs have terrorized Egyptian migrant workers, causing hundreds to flee to Tunisia."
Egyptian migrant workers who fled to Tunisia from Zawiyah, a coastal city 40 kilometers west of Tripoli, told Human Rights Watch that Libyan security forces shot at protesters who had defied government orders to stay inside their homes and who tried to hold a demonstration after Friday prayers. One migrant worker said he saw approximately 3,000 protesters in the main square, some of whom carried guns. He said that he later saw a group of men carrying several bodies, apparently in the direction of the cemetery.
Several migrant workers reported that opposition forces controlled much of Zawiyah, but that government security forces controlled surrounding areas and had set up checkpoints on the outskirts. They said, though, that armed pro-government groups as well as security forces remained within the city and shot at demonstrators or persons who stepped outside their homes. One witness reported seeing a tank in the city.
An Egyptian migrant worker described security forces firing at people's front doors to scare them into remaining indoors. "They fired at my door, and I didn't know what was happening or why they were shooting at our house," he said. "I heard gunfire the entire night, like they were going door to door," he said.
Egyptian migrant workers who had fled Zawiyah and surrounding towns described being trapped in their homes for days, unable to leave for fear of being shot. "We ran out of food in our house after four days and finally had to take a chance to leave," said Mohamad Rifa'ii, who had been living in Midan Shuhadat. "Some Libyans helped us to escape, and on the way we saw tanks on the street."
Egyptian migrant workers described being threatened and attacked by pro-government groups armed with knives and clubs following a speech on February 21 by Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in which he blamed the uprising in Libya on foreigners.
One Egyptian worker who fled Ajailat described how, following the speech, armed men had burst into the home he shared with other workers. "They came and told us they would kill us if we didn't leave the country by Thursday," he said. "We started packing our things."
Another Egyptian worker showed Human Rights Watch the bruises on his face that he said was from an attack by a pro-government armed group. "After Seif's speech, a gang of about 10 Libyan men forced their way into our house at about 2 a.m. and started attacking us, telling us that we were the cause of the uprising," he told Human Rights Watch. "They beat me and three of my friends until finally our Libyan landlord and some other Libyan men came in and told them to leave and to stop beating us. We knew it was time to go and started packing our things."
For the past several days, thousands of foreign migrant workers have streamed out of Libya across the Tunisian border. Several Egyptian migrant workers told Human Rights Watch that Libyan security forces took the batteries, SIM cards, and memory cards from their mobile phones at checkpoints as they left the country. Two showed Human Rights Watch how security forces had broken the cameras on their telephones as well. "They wanted to make sure we couldn't take any pictures or videos with our cameras," one said.
Several thousand Egyptians have been stranded at the border in tents set up by the Tunisian army, awaiting evacuation by the Egyptian government. Those stranded for several days expressed anger and frustration at the failure of the Egyptian government to arrange for their prompt evacuation.
"We've just escaped guns and bullets, leaving our possessions and jobs behind, and now we come here to freeze in tents," said one Egyptian migrant worker. "How come other governments have evacuated their nationals with boats and planes, but here across the border there is no one waiting for us? We don't even have our cell phones to call our families to tell them we are OK."
"The Libyan government is responsible for the security of foreigners within its borders," Whitson said. "But the international community needs to do more to help those who have escaped the horror."