More bombs fall near Libyan town; war crimes probe begins

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 3, 2011 

BREGA, Libya — A Libyan jet fighter bombed the outskirts of this rebellious eastern town for a second day Thursday as the International Criminal Court opened a war crimes investigation of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, his sons and top aides.

The two bombs that exploded in the desert just outside Brega, the site of a key oil-exporting terminal on the Gulf of Sidra, caused no damage or casualties, said witnesses, who expressed bewilderment at what the intended target was.

Saif al Islam Gadhafi, one of the dictator's sons, confirmed to Britain's Sky News that the regime had launched air raids against Brega, but said they were "just to frighten" the rebels into abandoning the town, "not to kill them."

"I'm talking about the harbor and the oil refinery there," he said. "Nobody would allow the militia to control Brega. It's like allowing someone to control Rotterdam harbor in Holland."

The raid came a day after a ragtag militia of civilians and military defectors, with no central leadership and armed with anti-aircraft guns, assault rifles and shotguns, converged on Brega from around the region and repulsed an assault by forces loyal to Gadhafi.

Twelve people were killed and 28 wounded in Wednesday's fighting, officials at the Brega hospital said Thursday.

In The Hague, Netherlands, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Louis Moreno-Ocampo, announced that he was investigating allegations that Gadhafi and his inner circle had committed crimes in unleashing their forces against unarmed protesters in the early days of the insurrection.

"No one has the authority to attack and massacre civilians. As soon as someone commits crimes, this is our business to investigate it and try and stop it," Moreno-Ocampo said.

Hundreds of people are thought to have been killed as Gadhafi's security forces and African mercenaries fought to crush the uprising, which was inspired by the largely peaceful revolutions around the region that began with the ousters of the authoritarian former presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.

The U.N. Security Council asked the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in a resolution approved Saturday that slapped sanctions on Libya, including an embargo on arms sales, and froze the assets of top officials.

Moreno-Ocampo said the targets of his investigation were "Moammar Gadhafi, his inner circle, including some of his sons, who had this de facto authority. There are also some people with formal authority who should pay attention to crimes committed by their people."

While mentioning no one else by name, he said the other suspects included foreign mercenaries, the commander of the 32nd Brigade, Gadhafi's national security adviser and the heads of his feared security services. Gadhafi's son Khamis commands the 32nd Brigade, and his son Muatassim is his national security adviser.

Once the investigation is complete, Moreno-Ocampo will present his findings to the court's judges, who will decide whether to issue arrest warrants.

A regime spokesman, Musa Ibrahim, told the BBC that the court's investigation was "close to a joke" and based on news reports.

"We have armed gangs having tanks, aircraft and machine guns and attacking police stations, army camps, ports and airports and occupying Libyan cities," Ibrahim said of the rebels. "This is far away from a peaceful movement."

Heba Morayef, a researcher in the Cairo office of the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said the group was tracking a disturbing trend of arrests and disappearances of suspected regime opponents in the western rebel-controlled city of Misrata and Tripoli, the capital.

The number of protesters who've disappeared is in the "50s and 60s" in Misrata alone, including a family whose three sons were arrested and now are missing, she said.

"It's pretty worrying because it's the targeting of everyone who's spoken to the media, who's passed along information," said Morayef, who'd just returned to Cairo from research in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. "It's pretty standard practice for internal security to arrest people and disappear them."

In Tripoli, which is still under the control of Gadhafi's forces, the apparent crackdown shows that "the security state is still very strong, very alive," she added.

Like journalists and aid groups, Human Rights Watch has had trouble pinning down casualty figures. The group relies on information from medical sources, Morayef said, but the climate of fear and retaliation compels many families to stay away from hospitals.

"People aren't even taking their wounded to hospital because of reprisal attacks," she said. In Benghazi, "Ambulances were targeted by snipers, and this is what could happen in Tripoli."

Human Rights Watch has confirmed 237 people dead in Benghazi alone, and 417 nationwide.

Morayef said those numbers were conservative, however, because the group hadn't been able to reach medical sources in Tripoli for the last five days. She said she expected the death toll from the unrest to range from 800 to 1,000 across Libya.

Other than the air raid on Brega, the day appeared largely peaceful in rebel-held eastern Libya as thousands of euphoric fighters gathered there and in several other towns, consolidating their control of the country's main oil-producing region.

As they loitered, some were given to making oversized boasts about the roles they played in the fighting in Brega a day earlier.

"I hung three Libyan soldiers by electrical wire. They are in the university now," asserted Mohammad Khalifa, 20, as he stood guard at a checkpoint in Ajdabiya, 45 minutes north of Brega. Asked by a reporter to be taken to see the bodies, he replied. "Oh, I can't leave my post," as a comrade nearby shouted, "Nonsense."

(Allam reported from Cairo, Landay from Washington.)

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