Libyan government forces have launched what appear to be repeated indiscriminate attacks on mountain towns in western Libya, Human Rights Watch said.
Accounts from refugees who fled the conflict say the attacks are killing and injuring civilians and damaging civilian objects, including homes, mosques, and a school. Human Rights Watch called on Libyan forces to cease their indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 50 refugees from Libya’s western Nafusa mountains in Tunisia from April 26 to May 1, 2011, as well as doctors and aid workers assisting those in need. The refugees gave consistent and credible accounts of indiscriminate shelling and possible rocket attacks in residential areas of the rebel-controlled towns of Nalut, Takut, and Zintan. Human Rights Watch could not confirm the refugees’ accounts due to government restrictions on travel in western Libya but, taken together, they describe a pattern of attacks that would violate the laws of war.
“Accounts from refugees paint a consistent picture: Libyan government forces are firing indiscriminately into towns and villages of the Nafusa mountains,” said Nadya Khalife, Human Rights Watch researcher, who interviewed Libyan refugees in Tunisian hospitals and refugee camps. “The scale of the attacks, which have damaged mosques, homes, and landed near hospitals, suggests the government has made little or no attempt to focus on military targets.”
The refugees said that government attacks from the outskirts of Nalut, Takut, and Zintan had damaged mosques, water facilities, homes, and a school, as well as landed outside two hospitals. The refugees said they had not seen rebel fighter activity or other military targets in the areas that were attacked.
According to the United Nations, by May 4 more than 44,000 Libyan refugees had crossed into Tunisia through the Dehiba crossing since April 7. More than 149,000 people had fled to Tunisia in total.
One Libyan refugee in Tunisia, Abdel Wahed T. (not his real name), 32, told Human Rights Watch how a government attack on his home in Zintan killed four relatives.
Abdel Wahed said that at the time of evening prayer on April 24, what he called a “rocket” landed next to his house in the residential neighborhood of Fra’een, which he said had not been used by rebel fighters. “I was at home, and we were listening to the ‘Grads,'” he said, using the term most refugees used for government-fired munitions. “My relatives were sitting on the floor in the house, and four of them died [when the munition hit].” The victims were Mohamad Ahmad ‘abd al-Salam, 76, Fajir al-Ma’aloul, in her 50s, Abd al-Rahman Mohamad al-Mehdi, 90, and Marwan abu Bakar Rmadi, 88.
Abdel Wahed said that he rushed to help after the munition struck and, at that moment, a secondary explosion scorched his face and caused other injuries. He was taken to the Zintan hospital where he stayed for several days, he said, but was forced to leave at 6:30 a.m. on April 27 after government-fired munitions landed outside the hospital. “Two rockets landed right in front of the hospital… and one of the nurses injured her hand,” he said. “My brother then took the car and brought me here to Tunisia.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed Abdel Wahed at the Tataouine hospital in Tunisia, where he was being treated for shrapnel in his left foot and both hands, two wounds on his chest, and first-degree burns on his face. Abdel Wahed said that the blast also injured an elderly male relative and a two-year-old girl, both of whom came with him to Tunisia for treatment.
Dr. Derza Moncef, director for emergency services at Tataouine Hospital in Tunisia, about 100 kilometers from Dehiba, said the hospital had treated at least five Libyan refugees every day since April 7, including for burns, shrapnel wounds, and broken bones. The hospital had seen Libyan children and some elderly who were malnourished and dehydrated, he said.
Under international humanitarian law applicable in Libya, all sides to the conflict are prohibited from targeting civilians and civilian objects or conducting attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, Human Rights Watch said. Forces must take all feasible precautions to minimize the harm to the civilian population, including avoiding deploying in populated areas and ensuring all targets are military objectives.
Armed opposition forces in Libya are also obliged to respect the laws of war, including by avoiding to the extent feasible locating military objectives in densely populated areas and endeavoring to remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives, Human Rights Watch said.
As in other conflicts, Human Rights Watch monitors compliance with the laws of war by all parties to the conflict – here the Libyan government, armed opposition groups, and international military forces.
“All persons responsible for attacks that amount to war crimes, including those who give the orders, are subject to prosecution,” Khalife said. “And soldiers should refuse to follow unlawful orders.”
Tensions in the Nafusa Mountains, inhabited by Arabs and ethnic Amazigh (or Berber), began on February 18, 2011, when residents of some towns staged peaceful protests against the Gaddafi government. The government responded by deploying security forces to reassert control, which provoked more protests and unrest, the refugees said. Pro-Gaddafi forces surrounded towns such as Zintan, Nalut, Takut, and Ruways al Hawamid, and blocked residents’ access to their farms and olive groves outside the towns, bringing most work and commerce to a halt. Some farmers who made it to Tunisia said that government forces killed or ate their livestock, or that the animals died from lack of water because farmers were unable to reach them. By late March rebel forces had control of at least these four towns and the government was shelling Zintan from its outskirts.
By April 7, the first refugees made it into Tunisia across the Dehiba crossing, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Over the next two weeks, 18,853 refugees crossed into Dehiba.
On April 21, rebel forces seized control of the town of Wazin, about four kilometers from Tunisia, and the Libyan territory leading to the Dehiba border crossing, opening a supply route into the mountains. Since then, control of this border area has changed hands between Libyan government forces and rebels, with frequent armed clashes, sometimes spilling into Tunisia. Starting on April 29, the Tunisian army also has clashed with Libyan government forces as they pursued rebels into Dehiba, sometimes forcing the border crossing to close.
According to the UNHCR, another 24,016 refugees from Libya officially entered Tunisia through the Dehiba crossing between April 22 and May 4. On April 30 alone 4,568 refugees fled to Tunisia through the Dehiba crossing, followed by another 3,500 on May 1. On average 2,500 refugees from Libya are also crossing into Tunisia every day using informal routes, UNHCR said.