UPDATE: On July 19, 2011, the opposition's Military Council in western Libya responded to Human Rights Watch's allegations of abuse by rebel fighters. The Council condemned the abuses, and committed itself to investigate them and respect the laws of war.
(Zintan, Libya) - Rebel forces in Libya should protect civilians and civilian property in areas they control, Human Rights Watch said today. The rebel forces should hold accountable anyone from their ranks responsible for looting, arson, and abuse of civilians in recently captured towns in western Libya, Human Rights Watch said.
In four towns captured by rebels in the Nafusa Mountains over the past month, rebel fighters and supporters have damaged property, burned some homes, looted from hospitals, homes, and shops, and beaten some individuals alleged to have supported government forces, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch witnessed some of these acts, interviewed witnesses to others, and spoke with a rebel commander about the abuses.
"Opposition leaders should halt and punish all rebel abuses" said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The rebel authorities have a duty to protect civilians and their property, especially hospitals, and discipline anyone responsible for looting or other abuse."
Rebel forces seized control of al-Awaniya, Rayayinah, and Zawiyat al-Bagul in mid-June 2011, ousting government forces that had used the towns as a base for attacks against rebel-held territory - some of them indiscriminate attacks on civilian-inhabited areas. Rebel forces captured al-Qawalish on July 6.
In all four towns, some residents had left when government forces first arrived to fight the rebels in April and May. In all the towns but Rayayinah, most of the remaining residents fled when government forces withdrew, apparently fearing reprisals from rebel forces.
Al-Awaniya and Zawiyat al-Bagul are home to members of the Mesheshiya tribe, known for its loyalty to the Libyan government and Muammar Gaddafi.
The rebel military commander in the Nafusa Mountains, Col. El-Moktar Firnana, admitted that some abuses had taken place after rebels captured the towns, but said such attacks violated orders issued to the rebel forces not to attack civilians or damage civilian property. He claimed that some people had been punished, but did not say how many people or for what offenses.
"If we hadn't issued directives, people would have burned these towns down to the ground," he told Human Rights Watch.
In al-Qawalish on July 7, Human Rights Watch saw people with rebel t-shirts and hats, some of them armed, loading items looted from stores onto trucks with rebel markings. Five houses, which Human Rights Watch had seen intact the day before when government forces withdrew, were on fire. Three more houses and one shop were on fire during visits on July 10 and 11, and at least six other houses appeared to have been newly burned.
Al-Awaniya and Zawiyat al-Bagul appeared empty of residents during several visits by Human Rights Watch between July 2 and 10. Houses on three streets in al-Awaniya and two streets in Zawiyat al-Bagul that Human Rights Watch inspected had been ransacked. The stores along the main streets in both towns had been broken into and looted.
Local residents told Human Rights Watch that the Libyan government had brought members of the Mesheshiya tribe to al-Awaniya from other towns approximately 30 years ago, a resettlement that continues to cause tension with neighboring towns.
In Rayayinah, one resident who stayed said that rebels had looted medical equipment from the polyclinic after taking the town. Human Rights Watch visited the facility on July 2 and saw vandalized rooms, broken windows and doors, and evidence of missing medical equipment, including an x-ray machine and possibly an electrocardiogram machine.
The hospital in al-Awaniya, inspected by Human Rights Watch on July 3, was in a similar condition, with missing equipment, broken windows, and damaged furniture.
A medic sympathetic to the rebels told Human Rights Watch that he had participated in the looting of the al-Awaniya hospital after rebels took the town:
[The al-Awaniya Hospital] was very well-equipped, and we basically took everything. It was well equipped for Gaddafi troops. [Rebels] said that Zintan would be the central hospital for the region.... I heard that the equipment from [the] Rayayinah [polyclinic] went to Zintan too.
Human Rights Watch visited the Zawiyat al-Bagul medical clinic on July 3. It had also been attacked and looted by vandals.
The removal of the medical equipment and damage to the facilities would hinder the return of the civilian population to those towns, Human Rights Watch said.
Residents of Rayayinah told Human Rights Watch that between 300 and 400 people stayed in the town when the rebels arrived, including in the western part, which government forces had used to shell rebel-held Zintan. One of the residents told Human Rights Watch that he saw the injuries of three people from the western part of town who claimed to have been beaten by rebels, and one person who said rebels had shot him in the foot:
Their wrists were tied with dusty wire and they had been beaten. I saw three cases but there are more than that. One lost two toes when a fighter from Zintan shot his foot. I saw a lot of bruises on the face, hands, everywhere. Most of them have left now.
Some of the damage in Rayayinah was also caused by government forces during their presence in the town. Mohamed el-Mizoughi, a local resident, told Human Rights Watch that government soldiers had punished rebel supporters by arresting them, burning down their houses, and looting their stores.
The rebel commander, Colonel Firnana, explained the rebel violations as a consequence of the victims' alleged support for government forces. "People who stayed in the towns were working with the army," he said. "Houses that were robbed and broken into were ones that the army had used, including for ammunition storage." He continued, "Those people who were beaten were working for Gaddafi's brigades."
It was dangerous for residents of the four captured towns to return because of anger in the rebel-held towns that government forces had attacked, Colonel Firnana said.
"Opposition forces have an obligation to protect civilians and their property in the areas they control so people feel they can return home safely and rebuild their lives," Stork said.
Two other towns in rebel-held territory in the Nafusa Mountains, el-Harabah and Tamzin, are known to include Gaddafi supporters, but they have managed to maintain relations with both the Libyan government and the rebels. These towns have not been used by government forces since the February uprising began.
Opposition fighters in the Nafusa Mountains have detained roughly 200 government fighters over the past month. Human Rights Watch had unrestricted access to detention facilities in Zintan, Yafran, and Kikla. Some detainees complained of physical abuse at the time of capture, but said that conditions since then had been adequate.
Human Rights Watch has documented repeated indiscriminate attacks by government forces on civilian areas in the Nafusa Mountains over the past two months, as well as the use of landmines. In the town of Yafran, government forces unlawfully occupied a hospital for six weeks.
"Opposition forces say they are committed to human rights, but the looting, arson, and abuse of civilians in captured towns are worrying," Stork said. "This raises concerns about how civilians will be treated if rebels capture other towns where the government has support."