Libyan rebels hanged at least two suspected pro-Gadhafi fighters in the chaotic early days of the uprising, witnesses say, revealing for the first time a bitter struggle within the rebellion about how to contain the anger unleashed after decades of oppression.
The full extent of revenge killings in eastern Libya is unknown. Near the coastal city of Darna, locals say they discovered a heap of bodies in the badlands south of town, where at least a dozen men appeared to have been executed with gunshots to the head. But the circumstances of those deaths remain unclear.
Doctors at four rebel-controlled medical facilities say they struggled – and failed on at least one occasion – to prevent mobs from killing patients accused of loyalty to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
The arguments over the fate of suspected pro-Gadhafi prisoners, whether in the emergency wards of Al Bayda or among screaming crowds in Darna, illustrate the tension between educated leaders and fiery young people that has emerged as a defining feature of the rebellion.
The New York Times quoted anonymous U.S. officials this week saying they have cautioned the rebels against harming civilians, even suggesting that air strikes could target anti-Gadhafi forces if they fail to respect the laws of armed conflict.
The actions of those who desperately tried to save the lives of pro-Gadhafi prisoners weren’t motivated merely by the fact that such revenge killings would sap the rebels’ international support. More fundamentally, they felt themselves fighting for the soul of the revolution.
Abdul Karim bin Taher, a 60-year-old English teacher, stood in the shadow of a rusty pedestrian bridge in Darna where he saw revolutionaries hang a man on Feb. 23 and recalled how he tried to stop the murder, pleading with the crowd to avoid becoming like Col. Gadhafi’s thugs.
“If we do the same things he did, what’s the difference between them and us?” he said.
Ultimately, moderates such as Mr. bin Taher appear to have gained the upper hand after the initial burst of violence in towns along Libya’s eastern coast, with most stories of revenge killings confined to the first week of the revolution.
Those captured by the rebels remain in grave danger, however. Hospitals sheltering injured pro-Gadhafi fighters must keep them hidden and guarded. At one medical facility, on a quiet floor, a handwritten sign in Arabic – “Closed for repairs” – marks the secret door leading to the prisoners.
A guard carrying two Kalashnikov rifles banged on the door, and other gunmen inside confirmed the guard’s identity before removing a metal bar and allowing visitors inside. Past the barred door, a series of locked rooms contained suspected pro-Gadhafi fighters recovering from their injuries.
Now safely in the hands of rebels who appear to respect human rights, the patients said they were eating well and were being treated kindly. One of them sat in a wheelchair and seemed incapable of speaking for himself, babbling softly in confused sentences. A rebel gunman kissed him on the forehead, a gesture of affection.
“The revolutionaries tried to hang him,” said a young attendant in a white doctor’s coat. “The rope broke. They thought he was dead, so they put him in the freezer. He is still alive, but his brain is not working.”
Medical records confirmed that the man arrived at the hospital unconscious, showing signs of strangulation, but other details of his story were unclear. A day after his first contact with journalists, rebels transferred him to another location.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said he is familiar with the man’s case. “It’s quite sensitive,” he said. “He is a witness to a mass execution.”
Other such incidents have occurred since the beginning of the revolution, Mr. Bouckaert said.
“There were quite a number of cases of hangings,” he said. “A lot of unruly armed elements detain people on their own initiative, without proper oversight.”