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Libya's mercenaries pose difficult issue to resolve

Muammar Qaddafi is likely relying heavily on African mercenaries, but if Libya falls to the anti-Qaddafi protesters, they're the ones who will have to figure out what to do with them.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / February 28, 2011

A Libyan militia member from the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi guards three men who they suspect to be mercenaries from Chad, after detaining them at a roadbloack near Marj in eastern Libya on Feb. 27, 2011.

Kevin Frayer/AP

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As anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya take control of different parts of the country, I think it is more accurate to call the events there a civil war, rather than simply “protests.” One contentious issue in this civil war is Qaddafi’s use of mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa. As the situation in Libya rapidly evolves, determining who the mercenaries are – and who is not a mercenary – has challenged both observers and the anti-Qaddafi forces. It seems clear that there are foreign mercenaries fighting in Libya, but it also appears that some innocent sub-Saharan African migrants have found themselves in danger over false charges. This post gives some background on the situation.

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Historically, Qaddafi has long used mercenaries as advisers and soldiers. African poverty has created a substantial pool of potential mercenaries, and it is likely Qaddafi is now using some of these hired guns against his own people.

Foreign mercenaries are likely to be less squeamish about shooting at local people.

“They are likely to better trained – a small unit that can be relied upon. They might also have experience of fighting battles and therefore be more capable if push comes to shove,” [said author Adam Roberts].

The view was echoed by Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch. “It’s hard to get your own people to shoot your own people,” he said. “In this kind of situation, you can see why mercenaries would be an advantage because it’s easier to get foreigners to shoot at Libyans than to get Libyans to shoot at Libyans.”

Some of the foreign fighters in Libya also seem to come from groups that have long-standing political and financial ties to the Colonel. Qaddafi’s sustained and deep involvement in African politics, especially the affairs of neighboring countries like Sudan, Chad, and Niger, has included “funding and training many fighting groups and rebel organizations in West Africa and other places.” Qaddafi’s relationship with Chad is especially intense. These ties not only affected the trajectory of conflicts outside Libya, but also shaped the composition of Libya’s security forces:

Over the years, says [Thierry] Vircoulon [of International Crisis Group], Libya has welcomed many foreign fighters from Chad, Mali, Niger, and elsewhere to naturalize, and Qaddafi has set up special units entirely composed of foreign fighters.

Other rebels, who stand to suffer if Qaddafi falls, have been willing to join the fighting in Libya:

[Peter] Bouckaert [of Human Rights Watch] described the fighters from Chad as men “who were not mercenaries specifically recruited to defend Gadhafi but members of (a Chadian) rebel movement Gadhafi has been funding and training for many years who would lose that support if he fell.”

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