Elias Hj Idris
(Last updated at 9:26 AM on 25th February 2011)

They were a pretty sorry bunch, these ‘Gaddafi mercenaries’. Assembled for my inspection in a scruffy, whitewashed room on the top floor of the courthouse building in ‘free’ Benghazi, six West African men shuffled nervously under the stern gaze of Arab youths.

If they tried to speak they were told to shut up. You could smell their fear.

And no wonder. A few days ago the boot was on the other foot. These men are alleged to have been among several thousand foreign thugs and gunmen that Muammar Gaddafi sent against his own people, to kill and destroy and quell the uprising in eastern Libya.

Captured mercenaries - mostly from Chad

'A sorry bunch': Mercenaries paid for by Gaddafi who had been rounded up and become prisoners of the people

Now they are the prisoners of the people, whose revolt against the 41-year-old regime is spreading rapidly westwards and likely to engulf the capital Tripoli in coming days.

I arrived in Libya’s second city yesterday in a driving rainstorm, which failed to dampen the fervour for new-found freedom that had seen half a million people assemble for a ‘victory’ rally the night before.

Benghazi is a large, sprawling and down-at-heel sea port. And it was clear from the evidence of my own eyes and the testimonies of many witnesses, that terrible events recently took place here.

In the past week anti-aircraft cannon and shoulder-launched rockets were deployed at close range against civilians armed with stones. Mobs of Gaddafi thugs in plastic construction helmets – dubbed ‘yellow hats’ by the protesters – also killed with machetes and clubs.

Reliable medical sources told me that more than 1,000 people have died so far in Benghazi as a result of Gaddafi-orchestrated violence. Some were killed when funeral processions for earlier casualties were attacked by snipers.
Scenting victory: Young rebels on an armoured vehicle
** We proud of you, brothers - Elias **

Thousands more have been wounded, with a score dying of their injuries on Wednesday alone. The city’s 1,200-bed main hospital has been overwhelmed.

The courthouse building on the corniche next to the docks has been a focus of the popular uprising since it began in the middle of the month. Occupied by the protesters early on, 20ft lengths of building timber are still wedged along the main doors as a barricade against Gaddafi loyalists.

From here an interim council of local professionals and intellectuals is trying to get Benghazi back on its feet.

And it is here that some of the alleged Gaddafi foot soldiers are being held.

After some negotiation I was allowed to see a handful. Those in charge were worried that if the thousands of people still chanting victory slogans on the seafront were to know of their presence so close there would be a lynch mob.

Scores of mercenaries have been captured in the fighting. I was told they come from a number of African countries with which Gaddafi has ties, usually through sponsoring conflict.

Many are said to be from war-stricken Chad, Niger and Sudan. At least one former member of the Tunisian special forces is supposed to be among those held in Benghazi, though I did not meet him.

Prison: Residents of Benghazi tour an underground jail
excavated by opposition supporters at one of Gaddafi's palace compounds

The Africans I saw ranged from a 20-year-old to one in his late 40s with a grizzled beard. Most were wearing casual clothes. When they realised I spoke English they burst out in protest.

‘We did not do anything,’ one told me, before he was silenced. ‘We are all construction workers from Ghana. We harmed no one.’

Another of the accused, a man in green overalls, pointed at the paint on his sleeves and said: ‘This is my job. I do not know how to shoot a gun.’

Abdul Nasser, a 47-year-old, protested: ‘They are lying about us. We were taken from our house at night when we were sleeping.’ Still complaining, they were led away. It was hard to judge their guilt.

Then I was shown a prisoner who was prepared to admit some part in the bloodshed.

Intrigue: A youth looks through a grill into the underground prison

A tough-looking young man in a black corduroy jacket, he would not give me his name, but admitted to being a 27-year-old member of Gaddafi’s presidential militia and having wounded one protester on the evening of February 19.

‘The African mercenaries put guns to our heads and forced us to open fire on the people,’ he claimed. ‘If someone refused then the mercenaries poured petrol over their head and set them alight. I saw this with my own eyes. I had to do what they said.’

The man said he was guarding the gates of the militia base in central Al Berka Square against stone throwing protesters when he shot one man in the leg at a distance of 50 metres.

‘He had stones in his hand,’ he said. ‘When he fell down he pulled himself up and gave the victory sign.’

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How many people had he seen killed that night? About 40 members of the militia, executed by the mercenaries, he claimed. And what about the people they were shooting at? ‘More than a hundred,’ he admitted.

He claimed he had deliberately aimed only to wound and had fired over the crowds’ heads when the mercenaries were not present. He had not been able to sleep for the guilt at what he had done.

This was his story. I did not quite believe him.

What did he expect to happen to him now? ‘It is in God’s hands,’ he replied.

The overthrow of dictators in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt was the catalyst. But like many uprisings, the one in Benghazi was sparked by one small event.

In 1996, Gaddafi had some 1,200 prisoners killed at the Abu Saleem jail near Tripoli. In recent years families of those killed have held small, peaceful demonstrations for justice in and around central Benghazi.

Treatment: A man is treated for his injuries sustained during a demonstration
against Gaddafi in Benghazi. Some 2,000 more has been killed.

On February 14, spurred by events elsewhere, they held their vigil outside the militia base in Al Berka Square. The following day, the authorities reacted by arresting Fathi Terbl, a lawyer representing three of the families, whose own brother was also killed in the jail massacre.

This enflamed popular feeling. Hundreds of people now gathered in the square. The security forces responded by opening fire, killing as many as 20.

The fuse had been lit. Benghazi rose as one on February 17. Gaddafi’s response was to flood the centre of the city with his ‘yellow hats’. Then came the African mercenaries, uniformed and armed with automatic weapons.

‘They began shooting anyone on the street,’ said Ali, a university academic from the English Midlands, who moved to Libya three months ago.

‘I saw them with my own eyes.’

British passport holder Mahmoud Elgin told me that he was savagely beaten by Gaddafi thugs who chanted as they swung: ‘Who is your master? Gaddafi is your master!’ In Al Berka Square, Gaddafi’s forces used a 14.5mm anti-aircraft gun against the crowds, said oil worker Mamdouh El Ferjani, who was present. ‘I saw one man whose face was blown off,’ he recalled. ‘Another was cut in two. Rockets designed to destroy tanks were fired at people in cars.

‘Even if they were unarmed or running away they were shot down. Our people had to fight back.

‘And it was the young people, the teenagers even, who fought hardest. Their example gave me the strength to stay and not be a coward.’ Saadi Gaddafi, the ruler’s thuggish third son, arrived in Benghazi on February 17 to try to pacify the protesters with promises of talks and reform.

I met a judge, Marwan Ahmed, who led the opposition side in the two-hour talks. ‘He acted like he was a polite gentleman, he was so desperate,’ said the judge. But Gaddafi junior refused to let the people demonstrate free from military interference. An hour after the talks ended the security forces arrested dozens more and the fighting continued until this week.

Yesterday Al Berka Square looked like a battlefield. The military buildings were burned out – as were all the police stations and regime offices across Benghazi. Thousands of small and heavy-calibre bullet holes pock marked the walls. Some had obviously been hit by either tank shells or rockets. It was a killing ground.

But the people won.
People power: Residents and former soldiers celebrate
inside a military compound in Benghazi

On Nasser Street, Benghazi’s main thoroughfare, the stanchions where Gaddafi’s image was displayed every 50 yards are now covered with posters which read: ‘Keep Benghazi Tidy’. Mustafa Gheriani, a member of the interim council, told me: ‘The western world has dealt closely with this man in recent years and he has tried to pretend he is just another dictator.

‘But he has done things here that no other tyrant, even Saddam Hussein, would dare. Also in an oil-rich country where the income per capita should be $10,000, the average person lives on two dollars a day.’

He added: ‘This is the young people’s revolution. We did not think those hair-gelled kids could be so brave.’

The interim committee is not happy about the number of looted guns still at large. But it is proud that streets are being cleaned, the banks are open and bread is being baked. And that the red, green and black flag embossed with crescent moon and star, symbol of the pre-Gaddafi monarchy, is flying on every corner.

To get to Benghazi we drove hundreds of miles across desert, hills and lush pastures of what was, until a few days ago, Gaddafi’s Libya.

We foreign journalists have been called ‘outlaws’ by Gaddafi’s loyalist Foreign Minister. We are supposed to be in the pay of Osama bin Laden.

That is not an unusual tactic for a failing regime; blame domestic discontent on outside interference, make outrageous allegations.

But if we are outlaws it is only because Gaddafi considers Libya to be his own, rather than belonging to the people who have greeted us as honoured guests rather than thieves in the night.

There is an undisputed public enemy number one in Libya. Surely justice is about to catch up with Colonel Gaddafi at last.
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