CAIRO — Fifty-three bodies discovered over the weekend were those of loyalists of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi who appeared to have been executed after capture, the latest in a string of extrajudicial attacks attributed to revolutionary fighters from the western city of Misrata, a human rights group said Monday.
Gadhafi's war machine laid waste to Misrata during the months-long, NATO-backed rebellion that eventually ended his regime's four decades in power. But since Gadhafi was chased from Tripoli, men from Misrata have launched a bloody campaign of vengeance in which, witnesses and human rights groups charge, they've raped African workers, razed a village, executed prisoners, looted private property and now refuse to disarm or to leave the posts they've commandeered in Tripoli, the country's capital. The Misrata brigades were holding Gadhafi when he died in disputed circumstances last week.
Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group that announced the discovery of the 53 bodies, said in a news release that Misrata forces were in control of the Hotel Mahari in Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, where the "badly decomposed" corpses were found.
The release cited witness accounts and graffiti that indicated that five of Misrata's best-known brigades were in Sirte last week when the killings are thought to have occurred. The bodies were "clustered together, apparently where they had been killed, on the grass in the sea-view garden of the hotel," according to the Human Rights Watch release.
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"This latest massacre seems part of a trend of killings, looting and other abuses committed by armed anti-Gadhafi fighters who consider themselves above the law," said Peter Bouckaert, the Human Rights Watch researcher who investigated the killings. "It is imperative that the transitional authorities take action to rein in these groups."
Wrangling Misrata brigades and thousands of other former rebels under a central authority will be a crucial test for the first post-Gadhafi caretaker government, which is under formation after Sunday's formal announcement of liberation.
Misrata, a prosperous commercial hub along the Mediterranean coast, already acts like a city-state in many ways, requiring visa-like permissions for entry and establishing military committees that coordinate only nominally with the interim defense ministry on maneuvers for their thousands of battle-hardened fighters. Leaders of the Misrata military council couldn't be reached for comment by telephone Monday.
"It's now turned into the 'Kingdom of Misrata,' " said a Western diplomat in Tripoli, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make public statements. "How does a policeman feel safe enough to go back to work if all these fighters are still around?"
A heavily armed, semiautonomous paramilitary force has no place in the provisional leaders' vision for a secure and democratic Libya, but they're reluctant to criticize a city whose people suffered so much and whose battlefield valor is now mythologized in song and poetry.
TV cameras showed Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the chairman of the U.S.-friendly National Transitional Council, the interim authority, warmly embracing fighters from Misrata on Sunday as young revolutionaries greeted him before a ceremony announcing the full liberation of Libya from the former regime. But he warned in his public speech that extrajudicial violence no longer would be tolerated.
"I call on all Libyans to resort to the law, nothing but the law, and not to use force to reclaim your rights," Abdul-Jalil told a cheering crowd in Benghazi, the eastern cradle of the revolt.
It's unclear whether his words will have any effect. Already, the Misrata fighters, awash with weapons supplied by the Persian Gulf Arab state of Qatar, have scoffed at the interim authorities' halfhearted attempts to disarm them.
On the political side, the city's would-be candidates are demanding an outsized role in the new government, arguing that Libya would've been cleaved in two were it not for Misrata's fighters, who cleared the way for the advance on Tripoli and linked the previously liberated east with the rest of the country.
"It's understandable that people are worried. Some of our boys have done bad things and the people just want to rest now," Mohamed al Majog, a Misrata brigade commander posted in Tripoli, said on a recent afternoon. "But we don't have ambitions to control the country. We suffered during Gadhafi's time and we'd never do that again to our people. They just need to negotiate with us."
Misrata forces captured Gadhafi and his son, Muatassim, alive on Thursday, and both died later the same day. At least one Misrata revolutionary commander told journalists that things "got out of control" in Gadhafi's final hours, but offered no apologies for the alleged execution of the man whose crackdown last spring killed hundreds of Misrata residents and left a generation of amputees.
"Misrata, you dog! Misrata!" a man is heard shouting at Gadhafi in a video filmed shortly after his capture that was posted online.
Several Misrata fighters are shown slapping, spitting on and punching their former ruler in a series of grisly videos that culminate with close-ups of Gadhafi's blood-streaked body.
Gadhafi's corpse was moved from Sirte to Misrata, where it lay rotting on public display Monday for a third day in a walk-in freezer at a market.
Leaders of the National Transitional Council claim that Gadhafi was captured alive and then struck by a stray bullet en route to the hospital. Human rights groups have said the fatal gunshot wound to Gadhafi's head signaled execution.
The council has pledged to return the body to Gadhafi's relatives, but there were no details of when or how that would happen, or whether the Misrata forces are on board with the plan.
Gadhafi's son Saadi, who fled to neighboring Niger, lambasted the National Transitional Council for issuing contradictory statements "excusing these barbaric executions and the grotesque abuse of the corpses," according to a letter sent via his attorney to the Reuters news agency. The letter went on to say that "no person affiliated with the former regime will receive a fair trial in Libya."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for an investigation by the council into Gadhafi's death in custody. Britain's defense secretary, Philip Hammond, also sought an investigation and was quoted as saying that the Libyan revolutionaries had been "a little bit stained" by the spectacle of Gadhafi's death.
Bowing to international pressure, Abdul-Jalil ordered an investigation into the circumstances of Gadhafi's death, he said at a news conference Monday in Benghazi.
"In response to international calls, we have started to put in place a commission to investigate the circumstances of Moammar Gadhafi's death in the clash with his circle as he was being captured," he said.
Any findings that paint the Misrata fighters in a less-than-favorable light are sure to rile emotions in the city, potentially complicating the process of forming a government. Human rights groups say the case of Misrata will be a litmus test for the council's ability to fulfill promises of a Libya that submits to the rule of law.
Matt Pennington, a Refugees International researcher who visited Misrata earlier this month, said he saw or documented several disturbing incidents involving the local fighters, particularly their treatment of black Libyans from the nearby village of Tawergha and any other blacks they accused of being African mercenaries for Gadhafi.
Pennington, responding by email to questions, said the main concern was that black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans "will remain exposed to revenge attacks by Misrata brigades — who will only be emboldened by this pronounced sense of triumphalism."
"The NTC needs to get out in front of the Libyan public and make clear that score-settling and revenge attacks will not be tolerated in the 'new' Libya," Pennington said, "and that predatory units will be investigated and brought to trial."
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