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Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011 (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011 (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters/Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Why black Africans are paying the price for the real or perceived use of mercenaries in Libya Add to ...

A cocked pistol points near the head of the black African teenager. A Libyan rebel barks questions in Arabic, waving an accusing finger as he suggests his captive is a paid pro-government mercenary. The youth's face freezes with muted terror.

It's an extraordinarily powerful image, one printed prominently in dozens of newspapers last week. And what makes it all the more potent are the details that the photographer could not capture in his frame.

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"Honestly, he didn't look to me as a mercenary at all," Reuters' Goran Tomasevic told The Globe and Mail from Ras Lanuf, the town near where he shot the photo.

The war photographer spoke of how he stumbled on the scene at a rebel checkpoint. There, angry onlookers were egging the interrogators on, claiming the youth - likely from Niger - had already "confessed" to being a foreign fighter. Yet he denied it, again and again.

Such scenes are playing out across Libya these days, as the uprising fuels friend-or-foe fears that resuscitate long-dormant tensions between mostly Arab citizens and foreign workers. "The black African, or sub-Saharan African population is, without any question, suffering repercussions and revenge attacks, for the real or perceived use of mercenaries by Gadhafi forces," said Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch in New York.

The organization, which is calling on Western governments to help evacuate nationals from several African countries, says international media has given too much credence to inflated claims about Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's reliance on foreign mercenaries. The group's man on the ground, Peter Bouckaert, has even suggested that "lazy, irresponsible journalism" imperils lives.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have flocked to Libya, mostly from neighbouring African states. Many of them are now being caught up in the heightening paranoia wrought by the conflict. They are hiding in urban centres and amassing along the borders in refugee camps. Compared to Westerners, whose governments are evacuating their citizenry at great expense, these migrants often have no help getting out.

Experts fear the Libyan conflict is evolving into a protracted civil war among various tribes. As both sides dig in, they accuse each other of recruiting foreign fighters. Col. Gadhafi claims his enemies are being spurred on by foreign "terrorists." But many experts believe that the dictator himself is taking advantage of alliances he has forged over the past 40 years, with a variety of rebel forces in nearby countries.

"They certainly are non-nationals fighting for power, if you define that as a mercenary. He does have non-Libyans," said Peter Pham, a U.S.-based expert on African security issues. He said that Col. Gadhafi is poised to have surrounded himself with Sudanese rebels, Tuareg tribesman, and a variety of other battle-tested veterans from regional conflicts.

Whether they are truly mercenaries is another matter. Some of the dictator's expatriate loyalists have actually resided in Libya for years. That means they could cast their lot with the Gadhafi family for a variety of reasons - loyalty, paycheques, or for lack of any other suitable haven. There are also credible accounts that Tripoli is bringing in untested youths from nearby African countries to shore up the government's ranks.

Speculation or not, rebel factions give a lot of credence to claims about the regime's reliance on mercenaries. This mindset spells trouble for young men from non-Arab Africa, who find themselves caught at checkpoints.

Mr. Tomasevic, the 41-year-old Serbian photographer, and Mohammed Abbas, a 31-year-old British reporter, were covering rebel movements for Reuters when they came across last week's scene.

Rebels were interrogating not one, but three, captive youths - including the one who was photographed. None seemed older than 20. They were wearing what appeared to be their best clothes. And they had apparently been pulled out of a car prior to being questioned.

What happened to them in the end? No one knows. The Reuters tandem says the rebel interrogators shoved their hostages during a 10-minute grilling session, but did not otherwise harm them. The rebels put the captives in a car bound for another rebel strongpoint, miles away.

"I'm very optimistic they've been exonerated," said Mr. Abbas, the Reuters reporter. "I very much doubt they've been killed."

He explained that he's heard that the leaders of the rebellion are exercising admirable restraint, and urging their fellow fighters not to leap to any conclusions about captives.

As for Mr. Tomasevic, the photographer, he said he was convinced the youth were not militants. "They had nice shiny shoes, you know?" he said, adding that such footwear suggests struggling migrants eager to make good impressions on their Libyan hosts.

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