Atrocities and lack of supplies strain Tripoli

In Tripoli, human rights workers and locals are uncovering evidence of mass killings by Muammar Qaddafi's retreating army. Meanwhile, water distribution and other basic services are in disarray.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters
Volunteers distribute water for the population in the city of Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 28.

After a week of fierce fighting between Libyan rebels and loyalists in Tripoli that sealed the ouster of strongman Muammar Qaddafi, a sense of normality is beginning to return to the city’s streets.

But many challenges remain, posing an immediate test of the interim government's ability to rule a restless country after 42 years of brutal, capricious leadership. Leaders in the National Transitional Council (NTC) and its local Tripoli branch face scrutiny both from international organizations as well as citizens facing shortages of water, fuel, and electricity.

Evidence is beginning to emerge of atrocities committed in the heat of the fighting, with Human Rights Watch reporting more than 100 arbitrary executions of detainees, medical workers, and others throughout the capital. While journalists and human rights workers are still investigating the atrocities, the New York-based organization said it suspected the Qaddafi regime.

“The evidence we have been able to gather so far strongly suggests that Gaddafi government forces went on a spate of arbitrary killing as Tripoli was falling,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Unsolved executions

At a roundabout south of Bab al-Aziziya, Qaddafi’s sprawling compound in central Tripoli, more than 30 corpses were found in and around what looked like a makeshift field hospital.

They wore the green wristbands of Qaddafi loyalists, although the wristbands looked suspiciously new compared with the state of their clothing, and at least some of them appeared to have been executed.

At the nearby Abu Salim hospital, more than 100 bodies were discovered on Friday. On an upper floor at least two Qaddafi soldiers had clearly been executed while lying in their hospital beds. But claims that Abu Salim constituted a massacre perpetrated by the victorious rebels need further investigation.

“Some of them came in here alive, others were already dead. Some were Qaddafi soldiers, but some were rebels, too,” says Naima Al Maghribi, the head of the hospital’s cleaning crew, as she leaned on a mop and tried to clean up the facility.

One explanation, repeated by several hospital staff members, was that the Abu Salim hospital became a morgue for fighters from both sides as well as civilians killed in the fight for the capital.

There was another grim scene in the Sallaheddine neighborhood, where at least 45 bodies were discovered in a charred hangar near a barracks belonging to the Khamis Brigade, named after one of Qaddafi’s sons and sometimes referred to as the 32nd Brigade.

According to neighbors and at least one survivor, those killed were civilians arrested at government checkpoints in the past few days and executed by retreating Qaddafi troops.

Water supply cut off. Qaddafi's revenge?

Many areas of Tripoli are now considered safe, however, and rebel leaders and international organizations are turning to the task of restoring public services and the flow of supply for residents.

The International Organization for Migration on Saturday brought food, medical supplies, and water, and took away a second boatload of refugees – bringing the total number of refugees who have fled Libya since February to nearly 670,000.

There are many rumors about why the water supply to the capital was cut off.

According to Faraj Saleh Eltayef, minister in charge of capacity building in the interim government, the rebel authority had intended to cut off the water supply to the capital at Gasr Ben Geshir, east of the city, because of a persistent rumor that the defeated regime had poisoned the water.

“But when we got there, we found that the water supply had already been cut off at El Hassouni, 500 km (310 miles) south of Tripoli,” says Mr. Eltayef.

If true, it would have been Qaddafi’s ultimate revenge. Drinking water for Libya’s main cities is provided by his pet project, the Great Man-Made River, a
$20 billion initiative 26 years in the making that funnels water from below the Sahara desert to the coastal cities.

At a press conference at Tripoli’s Radisson hotel Sunday, however, Information minister Mohammed Shammam dismissed the rumors of sabotage and said the water shortage was due to “technical difficulties” and would soon be resolved.

Fuel costs $20 per gallon

Fuel prices, meanwhile, have skyrocketed to about $20 per gallon – 28 times higher than before the fighting broke out, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Shammam said that a shipment of 30,000 metric tons of fuel was being distributed Saturday, and expressed hope that the Zawiya refinery would start up again, the AP reported.

At the Radisson press conference, Shammam and the other officials responded to nearly every question about the difficulties of the transition with, “We’re working on it.”

But when he was asked about Qaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim’s phone call to the AP’s New York offices, in which he offered to facilitate talks with Qaddafi, Shamman left no doubt.

“These are criminals fleeing from justice. There will be no negotiations. We will not talk to these people; we will arrest them,” he said.

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