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(Beirut) – Government and government-aligned military forces who entered Bani Walid on October 24, 2012, after a month-long operation should protect residents and property in the town. Many Libyans have considered Bani Walid a safe haven for supporters and former officials of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s former leader.

The Libyan government should facilitate the immediate delivery of medical supplies, food, and fuel to Bani Walid, Human Rights Watch said. It should also make clear that crimes committed by attacking forces – such as looting, beatings, and the destruction of property – will be prosecuted.

“The government and forces under its command should protect residents in Bani Walid and reject acts of revenge,” said Fred Abrahams, special advisor at Human Rights Watch. “There is an urgent need to stop destruction of the town and begin reconstruction, as well as to prosecute those who broke the law.”

The military offensive on Bani Walid, apparently sparked by the government’s failure to arrest suspected criminals in the town, also shows the urgent need to establish a criminal justice system that will fairly arrest, detain, and prosecute suspected criminals of any political faction, Human Rights Watch said.

The number of victims from the fighting and indiscriminate shelling in Bani Walid remains unclear. Doctors at the hospital there told Human Rights Watch that at least seven people not associated with any armed group had been killed and 60 wounded between the start of the siege in late September and October 18. That number rose as the attacking forces began a major assault on October 19, causing thousands of Bani Walid residents to flee.

According to the Libyan official news agency, at least 22 people were killed in the fighting. Journalists and human rights monitors have not been allowed into the town to confirm that figure.

Armed groups in Bani Walid have tried to defend the town, and media reported ongoing fighting on the outskirts as of October 24. Human Rights Watch called on the Bani Walid forces to do everything possible to protect local residents, including allowing them to flee and releasing any detainees.

Bani Walid, about 170 kilometers southwest of Tripoli, is home to Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla. Many consider Bani Walid a pro-Gaddafi town, though one militia from the Warfalla fought against Gaddafi in last year’s revolt and has participated in the current siege. In 1993, a group of Warfalla was among those who staged a failed attempt to overthrow Gaddafi.

Bani Walid officials have said that the population is loyal to Libya’s new government. But they say that they refuse to surrender people wanted for crimes before or during the 2011 conflict in which Gaddafi was ousted until Libya has a functioning judicial system and hundreds of Warfalla members held without charge are released from detention, especially in Misrata. Bani Walid and Misrata have a history of antagonistic relations.

Human Rights Watch has documented the torture of detainees from Bani Walid while they were in custody in Misrata.

The current violence began in early July, when unknown people from Bani Walid reportedly abducted two journalists from Misrata. Armed groups from Misrata went to retrieve the journalists, one of whom was Omran Shaban, who was credited with discovering Gaddafi in a drainpipe in Sirte one year ago. Shaban was reportedly shot and detained in Bani Walid, along with another man. The two men were released two months later, on September 13, after a negotiated deal. Shaban was flown to France for medical care but he died there on September 25. Reports circulated that he was tortured in custody – reports that Bani Walid leaders deny.

On the day of Shaban’s death, Libya’s newly elected parliament, the General National Congress, passed Resolution No. 7, which authorized the Interior and Defense Ministries to “use all their powers” to apprehend Shaban’s alleged killers, as well as other people in Bani Walid suspected of crimes committed before and during the 2011 conflict. Government forces and aligned armed groups, mostly from Misrata, surrounded the town. The armed groups are under the umbrella of Libya Shield – a grouping aligned with the Defense Ministry.

Bani Walid doctors sent Human Rights Watch medical records and photographs indicating that attacks on the town in early October had caused casualties, including people not involved with any armed groups.

Around 9 a.m. on October 7, for example, an unidentified munition hit a house in the town’s southwest district where displaced people from Tawergha, another town considered pro-Gaddafi , were taking shelter. The attack wounded Asaad Abdellaa Abdelhafiz, 42, her son Abdullah Abdelnaby, 12, and her daughter Mahfoutha Abdelnaby, 15. The children suffered second- and third-degree burns, and Mahfoutha was also wounded in the leg and foot.

On October 10, an unidentified munition hit a house in the Lekemeeat area, killing Mahmoud Mostafa Mohamed Fathallah, age 8, and his uncle, Abdelatheem Mohamed Al Mabrouk, 23.

According to a doctor at the hospital, 23 people came to the hospital for treatment on October 19 for injuries from attacks from forces outside the city, and four of them required amputations.

Two doctors from Bani Walid told Human Rights Watch on October 23 that the hospital was nearly abandoned by staff that day and was only able to treat people with light wounds. They said the area around the hospital was being shelled, and the town was low on medical supplies, food and milk.

The tension over the fighting in Bani Walid has spread to other parts of Libya. In Benghazi on October 21, angry protesters ransacked the Libya Al Hurra TV station, claiming the station had broadcast misleading news about Bani Walid justifying the attacks. In Tripoli on October 21, people supporting Bani Walid protested in front of the General National Congress, and some apparently tried to enter the building. Guards dispersed the demonstration by shooting into the air. Some of the demonstrators were allegedly arrested, but Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm this claim.

“The need to arrest criminal suspects should not have led to a military assault on Bani Walid,” Abrahams said. “Now the government needs to do everything it can to protect the town’s residents from retribution, and help them rebuild their lives.”

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