War's horrors on display as fight for Gadhafi stronghold ends

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 26, 2011 

WORLD NEWS LIBYA 2 MCT

Doctors and staff of Abu Salim Hospital load bodies onto a truck for transport to the morgue in Tripoli, Libya

DAVID ENDERS — David Enders/MCT

TRIPOLI, Libya — Two dozen bodies lay in a traffic circle on Friday not far from Moammar Gadhafi's Bab al Aziziya compound, mute and pungent testimony to the carnage that has taken place here.

The dead apparently had been pro-Gadhafi fighters, but they had not gone down fighting. Some had been shot inside their tents, possibly asleep, without shoes on. One had been shot inside an ambulance and another had been shot inside a field hospital, still hooked to an intravenous drip.

Others had gunshot wounds in the back of their heads, fueling speculation of executions by rebel fighters. Some of the dead lay in front of a large billboard bearing a picture of Gadhafi, one of the few such displays remaining in the capital, underscoring the apparent prevailing sentiment of the neighborhood's residents.

If there were witnesses to how the men died, they had yet to tell their stories.

On Friday, anti-government rebels secured the Abu Salim neighborhood adjacent to Bab al Aziziya, marking their victory with a burst of celebratory gunfire that rocked the area about 4 p.m. It was another step in the rebel push to take control of Tripoli that each day since Sunday has seen the rebels come a little closer to vanquishing what remains of Gadhafi's loyalist forces.

The fighting was far from over, however. NATO aircraft bombed Tripoli's main airport, which remained in loyalist hands, and also fired missiles at what was described as a headquarters in Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, 300 miles to the east. There was also fighting in western Libya, where rebels took control of a key border crossing to Tunisia.

Gadhafi remained at large.

But Tripoli seemed quieter than it had been in previous days, and the end of the battle for Abu Salim allowed a view of the horrors that had taken place, both those of recent days as well as others from longer ago.

Former inmates at the notorious Abu Salim prison, where in the best of times conditions were said to be deplorable, returned to recount their last few days in detention.

Guards had fled on Monday amid heavy fighting, leaving more than 5,000 prisoners largely without food until some prisoners managed to break out of their cells on Wednesday and release the others.

"The last three days we heard gunshots in the early morning — we suspected (the guards) were killing people," said Mohamed Ibrahim, who on Friday brought some friends to the prison to show them where he'd been.

Ibrahim said he'd been arrested last month for supporting the rebels. While he was in prison, he shared a cell with 15 other prisoners. He showed it to his friends. It was approximately 20 square feet inside.

"My story is small compared to many others," he said.

The prison is best known to Libyans for housing political prisoners. It was the site of a massacre of about 1,200 prisoners in 1996 who were demonstrating for better living conditions.

In the last month, as the number of prisoners grew, guards set up tents inside the prison yard to house them. Ibrahim was among those rounded up.

"My family had no idea where I was," Ibrahim said. "They were going to hospitals, looking for my body."

At the Abu Salim Hospital nearby, doctors returned to work Friday to find more than 100 bodies inside the hospital and on its grounds, including at least two patients who had been shot in their hospital beds.

An ID card on one of the men identified him as belonging to Brigade 32, a special forces unit under the command of Khamis Gadhafi, one of Moammar Gadhafi's sons.

ID cards belonging to many of the other dead suggested that they were pro-Gadhafi militiamen, including citizens of Nigeria and Sudan. Many of the bodies were bloated and in various stages of decomposition, making it unclear how or when they had died.

"The last three days there was no one here," said Hussein Mohamed, a doctor at the hospital, explaining that Gadhafi loyalists had forced the hospital's regular doctors out 10 days ago and replaced them with their own medical staff. But those Gadhafi doctors had fled the hospital during the fighting of the last few days

"When the revolutionaries came, they found it like this," he said.

The rebel advance itself appears to be largely without any command-and-control structure beyond the local level.

Rebels fired into the air to stop residents from looting a warehouse full of electronics and appliances.

"We didn't have orders to stop looting," said one fighter, who argued with residents who complained they hadn't been able to work since the uprising began.

"I haven't taken my salary in six months!" said one woman who dragged a refrigerator out of the warehouse, undeterred by rebels firing into the air.

Most of the rebels in Abu Salim on Friday said that they had come from Misrata, east of Tripoli, without direct orders. Before going to the front line, Hassan Yousif, one of the fighters from Misrata, stopped at the presidential compound, where he helped himself to a brand new Italian-made rifle left behind by Gadhafi's forces.

Nearby, his friends set fire to a green flag, one of the symbols of Gadhafi's rule, that they had found inside a museum commemorating the U.S. bombing of Gadhafi's compound in 1986.

"There is still danger in Khoms, and snipers in Zlitan shot at our car," Yousif said, naming cities to the east that they had passed as they made it to Tripoli. "But we wanted to help with the fighting."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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