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Tensions rise in Benghazi as al-Gaddafi forces mount attacks

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International crisis researcher

The situation has significantly deteriorated in Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya in the past few days. Since yesterday, while Colonel al-Gaddafi’s spokespeople reiterate that their forces are observing a ceasefire, armed al-Gaddafi loyalists - who people identify as members of the lijan thawriya (Revolutionary Committees), groups of loyalists who acted as informers and intelligence gatherers, among other tasks, and were omnipresent in towns and villages all over Libya - have sprung into action in the city, carrying out targeted and indiscriminate armed attacks.

These individuals are seemingly acting in small groups and appear to be composed of al-Gaddafi loyalists who have been keeping a low profile since last month’s takeover of the eastern towns by pro-reform demonstrators (some here refer to these as “sleeper cells”) and who have possibly been joined by other al-Gaddafi loyalists or members of armed forces loyal to al-Gaddafi who entered the towns pretending to be ordinary people.

Such ways of operating are extremely difficult to monitor. Among the victims of such attacks is a family of three – a child and his parents – who were shot in the town on Saturday (19 March).

I saw the child, a young boy of four (according to the doctors, though he could be five or six), yesterday (Sunday 20 March) in the intensive care unit of one of the main hospitals. He had been shot in the chest (upper left side, near the left armpit).

The doctors are hopeful that he will pull through but his father died hours after reaching the hospital and, according to the doctors, there is no chance of survival for his mother, who was shot in the head and lay in a coma in a bed next to him in the hospital.

Yesterday (Sunday 20 March), while I was in one of the city’s hospitals, a firefight broke out in a small square outside the hospital’s main gate. First the body of a young man was brought in. He had been shot three times in the throat; obviously the work of a well trained sniper.

He had no identification documents or mobile phone on him and was said to have been shot by al-Gaddafi loyalists. As the firefight outside the hospital died down several bodies (between two and four – they were covered by blankets and I did not linger to check) were brought in to the morgue on the back of a pick-up vehicle by the thuwwar(revolutionaries), who said that the bodies were those of some of the al-Gaddafi loyalists who had initially opened fire near the hospital.

Another firefight was also reported in another area in the south-west of the city. On Saturday (19 March) a rocket, seemingly fired by forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi stationed on the outskirts of the city, landed in the car park of a hotel (the hotel where I am staying), fortunately causing no harm to anyone but resulting in a fair bit of worry to staff and guests alike. Such cases, which fortunately remain limited in number so far, have caused a drastic and palpable increase in fear and tension around town.

So, while fears that tanks and heavy armour belonging to Colonel al-Gaddafi’s armed forces would enter the city have receded after their positions on the outskirts of the city were targeted and destroyed on 19 March by international coalition forces, the residents of Benghazi are now confronted with a new challenge.

It is still too early to assess whether these armed individuals will be able to carry out more than sporadic attacks. One can only hope that such attacks will cease but for now the atmosphere is quite different from that I had experienced in the previous three weeks I have spent here, when there was no such sense of insecurity.

People in Benghazi and the rest of the east have hardly slept for almost a week now. First (from the middle of last week), as forces loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi advanced eastwards (towards Benghazi) with heavy armour, people were terrified at the prospect of the likely reprisals that these forces would carry out against those who participated in the pro-reform demonstrations last month (15 to 21 February).

Last Tuesday (16 March), as most foreign journalists were leaving Benghazi and heading eastwards to Tobruk, close to the Egyptian border, a young woman who has been active in the protest movement and who I won’t name for her own safety, told me:

“Gaddafi’s forces shot dead so many peaceful protesters and abducted many others who remain disappeared.  If they come back into Benghazi the retribution against the population will be extremely harsh. I fear for myself and my children, and I fear even more for all those young people who took to the streets with no weapons other than their dreams for a better future and whose optimism and determination gave us all the courage to raise our heads and speak out against four decades of blind repression.

People went out to demonstrate peacefully and openly, they did not hide their faces; everyone is very vulnerable if Gaddafi’s forces come back into Benghazi and other towns; there will be noone to protect us. We are scared.”

On Thursday (18 March) night, the UN Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and other measures aimed at protecting the civilian population was very much welcomed and people in Benghazi and all over eastern Libya. The celebrations involved too much reckless celebratory firing in the air for my liking – what goes up eventually comes down and people can and do get killed and injured as a result.

Many people here agree but nobody seems to have much authority over the thuwwar, who are mostly young, inexperienced and totally unaware of the danger such actions can pose to themselves and to others. One of the people I visited yesterday (20 March) in one of the hospitals, a 20-year-old university student, had been injured by one of the many “celebratory” bullets fired on Thursday (18 March) night. He was standing with friends watching the post-UN Security Coucil celebrations when a bullet came down on top of his head; the X-ray showed that the bullet travelled downwards and lodged itself inside his scull, by his left ear.