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In Qaddafi's hometown, signs of trouble for Libya

Signs of looting and a massacre by Libya's victorious revolutionaries in Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte have some on edge.

By Gert Van LangendonckCorrespondent / October 25, 2011

Residents return to their homes after the liberation of Sirte, Libya on Monday.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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Sirte, Libya

The flatbed trucks are the first sign of trouble. They are empty going from Misrata to Sirte; in the opposite direction they are loaded with cars, stacked sideways to fit as many as possible.

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The next sign is a bit more blunt. At Sirte's Mahari beach hotel civilian volunteers are removing dozens of bodies from the lawn close to the beach.

There were at least eighty of them, says Faraj al-Hamali, who worked at the Mahari’s restaurant. On Sunday, Human Rights Watch counted 53. On Monday, the last of the bodies were being removed to a nearby cemetery.

“They were executed by the rebels from Misrata,” says Mr. Hamali. “These rebels are worse then Qaddafi.”

According to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, “it is by far the largest single killing allegedly perpetrated by the Libyan rebels.”

Who the victims were is not so easily determined. They appear to have been killed three to four days ago, around the time that Muammar Qaddafi was captured and killed as he tried to escape from Sirte.

Hamali says many of them were civilians from Sirte. Other Sirte residents identified four of the victims to Human Rights Watch as Ezzidin al-Hinsheri, allegedly a former Qaddafi government official, a military officer named Muftah Dabroun, and two Sirte residents, Amar Mahmoud Saleh and Muftah al-Deley. Journalists in Sirte when it fell on Thursday saw former rebels pulling apparently unarmed people our of houses.


Who shot them?

What seems beyond doubt is that they were executed. The bodies were all lined up on the hotel lawn and there are no signs of a gun battle other than the spent cartridges from AK-47 and FN-1 rifles.

The identity of the killers is only slightly less certain. They left a calling card -- dozens of graffiti slogans claiming the hotel for the Nimr Katiba (Tiger Brigade) from Misrata, the same brigade that captured and killed Qaddafi on Thursday.

The Tiger Brigade has controlled the Mahari hotel since early October and lost two of its top leaders in the fierce fighting over the hotel.

“This is the revenge of Misrata,” says Hamali. Misrata is a coastal city to the north that withstood a six-month long siege by Qaddafi's troops.

Downtown Sirte was a ghost town on Monday. The fighting here was fierce, but it doesn’t explain why not a single house seems to have been left untouched.

Haj Otman Belhaj, a rebel commander from a different Misrata fighting group, says: “We would destroy a building if there was a pro-Qaddafi sniper holed up in it. But the Tiger Brigade, they would just blow up buildings for the hell of it.”

On Dubai Street, Sirte’s main drag, a young man in a red hoodie strikes a lonely figure amidst the devastation. Every single building is riddled with bullets and grenade holes, and the entire street is flooded.

“My name is Qaddafi,” he says, referring to the tribe that Muammar Qaddafi belonged to.

“I returned three days ago with my brothers. We were among the last ones out; we were the first to come back in. We had no choice; we were living in tents in the desert.”

Uncertain future

But on the second day, the young Qaddafi ran into rebels from Misrata, easily recognizable because they all paint their vehicles black.

“As soon as I told them my name, they threw me in the water, beat me up and kept me for a day until a rebel from Benghazi got me released,” he says. “Qaddafi never did this to me.”

Three rebels come strolling up through the deserted street. From Brega and Ajdabiyah in the East, they say it is their job to protect the civilian population.

“We have had to ask the rebels from Misrata to treat the civilians better,” admits Hathiya Ali Salim Jadren, from Ajdabiya. “But Sirte is now mostly under the control of units from the east and from Sirte itself. Only a handful of units from Misrata are left. It should be okay now.”

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