Forces aligned with the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) attacked a military base and allegedly executed at least 30 captured soldiers, Human Rights Watch said. A hospital official and an eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that soldiers from the 13th Battalion aligned with the GNA Defense Ministry attacked the base in Brak El-Shati, in southern Libya, on May 18, 2017, and executed troops from the 12th Battalion of the Libyan National Army (LNA).
The head of the GNA’s Presidency Council ordered an investigation and the suspension of his defense minister and the commander of the battalion responsible for the attack. The summary execution of persons who have been captured or who have surrendered constitutes a war crime.
“The Government of National Accord should act on its promise to investigate allegations that its troops executed opposing forces who had already been rounded up,” said Eric Goldstein, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to send a strong message that such crimes will not be tolerated which means that if the allegations are true, they should try those responsible.”
The LNA does not recognize the authority of the GNA, and instead supports rival authorities based in the east.
A senior official in the main hospital in Brak El-Shati told Human Rights Watch by phone that the hospital had received 75 dead as of May 19, all adult men with the exception of 2 boys aged around 15, and that around 30 were military personnel. The official said that all the military dead had died from gunshot wounds, and that all had bullet wounds to their head. He also said that five corpses arrived at the hospital with bound arms, and another six had been disfigured in a way that suggested their heads had been run over by a vehicle. The official said the hospital received no one injured in the attack, nor did it receive any casualties from the 13th Battalion. News reports quoted an LNA spokesperson saying 141 were killed.
Human Rights Watch also spoke by phone on May 19 with a member of the LNA’s 12th Battalion who survived the attack, a member of the Libyan Red Crescent Society Brak El-Shati, and a spokesperson from the 13th Battalion. Human Rights Watch also reviewed extensive photo and video material related to the clashes.
Brak El-Shati military base is under the control of the LNA’s 12th Battalion, commanded by General Khalifa Hiftar. Troops from the LNA’s 10th Battalion were also present during the clashes. The LNA is allied with the Interim Government and House of Representatives based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda and Tobruk. The interim government is one of the three governments vying for legitimacy, international recognition, and control of territory in Libya. The LNA forces in the south have been engaged in an armed conflict with the 13th Battalion, an alliance of armed groups that includes the Third Force from Misrata, the Benghazi Defense Brigades, and other armed groups from the south. The 13th Battalion is under the command of Al-Mahdi Al-Barghathi, the GNA defense minister. The GNA, based in Tripoli, is the only Libyan government recognized by the UN Security Council.
According to the 12th Battalion soldier who witnessed the attack and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, elements of the 13th Battalion based in the nearby Tamenhint airbase, about 60 kilometers away, staged the surprise attack at around 9:30 a.m. The eyewitness said that the heavily-armed attackers, who included Chadian fighters, arrived in a large convoy of black armored vehicles.
The LNA soldier, who was at the main gate with around nine other LNA soldiers, said the attackers came out of their cars shooting and fought their way to the interior. The LNA soldiers returned fire but offered little resistance once the attackers had penetrated the base. The 13th Battalion withdrew five or six hours after arriving, taking prisoners.
Hiding under an overturned car during the attack, the LNA soldier said he saw nine comrades executed: “I saw the attackers catch my nine comrades who had been running with me from the main gate. They were disarmed, lined up in a row, and made to kneel on the ground. The attackers then sprayed them with bullets, and once they were lying on the ground dead, the attackers shot each and every one of them in the head. As they were shooting they were shouting, “You apostates, you enemies of God.”
The soldier said that there did not seem to be much resistance in the base, but that he could hear intermittent shooting, which he believed to be “executions.” He said one or two of his comrades survived by hiding among the dead, but that the attackers killed all the military personnel who did not hide or escape. He said they also killed civilian cooks, workers, and medical personnel. However, they did not harm detainees held by military police at the base. The soldier said that the attackers caused much destruction and looted vehicles, military equipment, and weapons.
According to the hospital official, the 75 bodies received included two migrant workers from Niger whose job was to unload food trucks at the base. He said the dead included two civilians unconnected to the base who were killed on the road. He said that relatives who accompanied one victim to the hospital told him the man had been shot in front of his family. The other, a truck driver, had been shot in the head, and both his arms broken. The hospital official said the retreating forces set ablaze the food warehouse and some trucks. He added that the nonmilitary victims were killed by gunfire but unlike the military victims did not have execution-style shots to the head.
Human Rights Watch reviewed at least 80 photographs and several videos that seemed to show the May 18 attack; they appeared to corroborate witness statements about the incident. The photographs showed mainly dead men, some in uniform, many with what appears to be a single gunshot wound to the front of the head. One video shows a group of four LNA detainees from the Brak El-Shati airbase in the back of a pickup truck, shackled, handcuffed, and blindfolded while fighters, seemingly from the 13th Battalion, give them water to drink as they talk about the events at the base.
Another video, shot from inside a car, shows a convoy driving on a desert road; the passengers say they are from the Benghazi Defense Brigades on their way to attack Brak El-Shati. The video then shows around nine dead men face down as an unidentified person shoots at them and a voice calls them “mercenaries of Hiftar and dogs of Hiftar.” Human Rights Watch cannot independently verify the videos or photos.
Mohamed Alghiwan, a spokesman for the 13th Battalion, told Human Rights Watch that forces from the battalion had attacked the Brak El-Shati base on May 18 in retaliation for many attacks on their Tamenhint base. Alghiwan denied that forces linked to the battalion had committed summary executions or any other laws-of-war violations during the attack.
Alghiwan added that the 13th Battalion suffered no injuries or deaths in the attack and took 14 or 15 prisoners. He said the battalion would release only civilian detainees.
All parties to a conflict are required to abide by the laws of war. Certain serious violations of the laws of war, when committed with criminal intent, such as executions of civilians or enemy fighters who had been captured or had surrendered, are war crimes. Anyone who commits, orders, or assists, or has command responsibility for war crimes, can be subject to prosecution by domestic courts or international courts. Commanders may be criminally liable for war crimes of their subordinates if they fail to hand over those responsible for prosecution.
“Senior commanders need to understand that they too can be implicated in war crimes unless they act resolutely to stop them and punish those responsible,” Goldstein said.