Amnesty International accuses Gadhafi regime of war crimes in Misurata

The Libyan army committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the besieged rebel-held city of Misurata by deliberately targeting and killing civilians, the human rights group Amnesty International alleged in a report issued Friday.

Indiscriminate and widespread attacks against civilians – combined with the practice of using residential areas to “shield” tanks from NATO airstrikes, the systematic shooting of peaceful protesters and the enforced disappearance of perceived opponents – suggest that war crimes were committed, the human rights group said.

“The scale of the relentless attacks that we have seen by al-Gadhafi forces to intimidate the residents of Misurata for more than two months is truly horrifying,” said Amnesty’s Donatella Rovera. “It shows a total disregard for the lives of ordinary people and is in clear breach of international humanitarian law.”

There was no immediate response from Gadhafi’s government. But for weeks, the regime has repeatedly argued that it was not shelling Misurata at all, or using any heavy munitions on the city, despite daily eyewitness accounts to the contrary from foreign aid workers, journalists, residents and human rights workers.

On Wednesday, a boat operated by the International Organization for Migration had to dodge incoming shells as it unloaded humanitarian aid and evacuated hundreds of foreign migrant workers and wounded civilians from the area. The Red Star One had been waiting outside Misurata for four days for a gap in the shelling and for NATO to clear mines from the harbor laid by Gadhafi’s forces.

Gadhafi’s regime has threatened to attack any ship, including humanitarian vessels, that tried to enter Misurata port and says it is justified in doing so because rebels are also using the port to deliver arms, ammunition and reinforcements.

“We will not allow these ships to bring arms to the city and then evacuate some criminals,” Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told a news conference in the early hours of Friday morning.

Day after day, forces loyal to Gadhafi have attacked the city with inaccurate 122mm Grad rockets often fired from miles away, as well as with mortars and 155mm artillery shells. Those munitions, Amnesty International said, were designed for use against massed infantry or armor, and under international humanitarian law should never be used in populated residential areas.

Doctors in Misurata say hundreds of civilians have been killed. On April 14, for example, a dozen residents were killed and many more were injured when several salvos of rockets rained down on the Qasr Ahmad neighborhood. Many of the victims were struck while they were standing in line outside a bakery.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both also found evidence that mortars containing cluster submunitions were being used in residential areas, including in the city center.

The Libyan government denies using cluster munitions, and Kaim once suggested reporters ask NATO where the munitions were coming from. Another minister told a stunned group of foreign journalists that all the children killed in Misurata were victims of NATO airstrikes.

Snipers have also been mobilized to kill civilians, Amnesty International said, citing the case of Ibrahim Ahmad al-Dernawi, 33, a father of three who was shot and killed in his parents’ house.

“He was holding his six-month-old son in his lap, and we were talking,” his father told the rights group. “I suddenly heard the sound of the glass breaking but the window did not shatter. Then I saw blood pouring from my son’s face. He died instantly.”

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the UN Security Council on Thursday he would seek arrest warrants against three Libyans who appear to bear “the greatest criminal responsibility” for crimes against humanity, since Gadhafi began a crackdown on protests against his rule in mid-February.

Mohamed Ali, a rebel spokesman in Misurata, said the shelling of the port was discouraging foreign reporters and camera crews from coming to the city, with 20 journalists fleeing on the IOM ship. “We fear that Misurata’s story will not be told to the world,” he said, speaking via Skype. “This is a major success for the tyrant.”

Misurata, the only major city in western Libya still in rebel hands, is an important and strategic prize in Libya’s civil war. Two weeks ago, rebels chased Libyan government forces out of central Misurata, although the shelling has continued from bases on the outskirts.

Since then, the government has been threatening a counterattack led by tribal militia, something Ali said he fears will amount to an assault by “soldiers in civilian clothes.”

Gadhafi “is preparing something menacing I think,” Ali said. “And there is no one on the ground to report it.”

( / 06.05.2011)

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