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.
(New York) - The international Contact Group on Libya, meeting in Istanbul on July 15, 2011, to discuss the conflict, should press Libya's opposition authority to ensure that civilians are protected in areas where rebels have assumed control, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch has documented abuses in four towns recently captured by rebels in the western mountains, including looting, arson, and beatings of some civilians who remained when government forces withdrew.
"Rebel abuses may pale in comparison with the atrocities by Libyan government forces, but they require immediate attention," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments supporting the NATO campaign should push the opposition to protect civilians in areas where rebels have control, especially where some people may support the government."
The Contact Group is meeting for the fourth time to discuss the Libya conflict, with high-level representation from countries that support the NATO intervention and Libya's opposition National Transition Council.
In the four recently captured towns in the Nafusa Mountains - al-Awaniya, Rayayinah, Zawiyat al-Bagul, and al-Qawalish - Human Rights Watch found that rebel forces had burned some homes and shops and looted three medical clinics. In the one town where some civilians remained, al-Awaniya, rebels beat some people they accused of having supported government forces.
Government forces had been based in all four towns, using them to position themselves for attacks, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian-inhabited areas. 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.
"How the rebels behave in towns that have supported Gaddafi gives an indication of what they may do if they gain control in other areas, especially if they approach Tripoli," Whitson said. "It is critically important for them to carry out their stated commitment to human rights, including holding accountable anyone in their forces who violates those rights."