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Smoke billows as Libyan rebels progress westward from the town of Bin Jawad towards Moammar Gadhafi's hom town of Sirte on March 28, 2011. (ARIS MESSINIS/ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke billows as Libyan rebels progress westward from the town of Bin Jawad towards Moammar Gadhafi's hom town of Sirte on March 28, 2011. (ARIS MESSINIS/ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

In a rebel prison, any African is a mercenary Add to ...

New towns along Libya's main coastal highway celebrated their freedom from the rule of Moammar Gadhafi as rebels advanced closer to Tripoli.

By late afternoon, rebels had swept through Bin Jawad and As Sider and a spokesman said fighters were within 30 kilometres of Surt, home to many of Colonel Gadhafi's fellow tribesmen and a bastion of support for his rule. Col. Gadhafi's forces were said to be streaming to defend the city, after which only rebel-friendly Misurata and a vast swath of desert come before Libya's capital.

The rebel advances in the wake of international air strikes against Gadhafi targets came as Britain prepared to host an international conference aimed to enable Libyans to choose their a new leadership. In a joint statement ahead of Tuesday's meeting, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Gadhafi loyalists should abandon the dictator and side with those seeking his ouster.

Italy, meanwhile, was seeking to find a haven for Col. Gadhafi elsewhere in Africa. "Gadhafi must understand that it would be an act of courage to say: 'I understand that I have to go,'" Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said. "We hope that the African Union can find a valid proposal."

As the rebels continues sweeping west along the road to Tripoli, capturing suspected loyalists along the way, they have had to take steps to deal with the rising number of prisoners.

A group of 14 men who described themselves as migrant workers from Mali said they were enjoying an afternoon nap on Sunday at a construction site near Bin Jawad when armed youths burst into their quarters. Gunmen beat them with rifle butts, fists, and even shoes, they said.

Their dark skin had apparently aroused the rebels' suspicion about African mercenary units, described as the culprits in many stories of the atrocities against the rebellion. Rumours run wild about mercenaries flying into Libya, smoking hashish, popping Viagra, and abusing Libyan women.

"They accused us of crimes we did not commit," said Santiago Keita, 24, who arrived at a Benghazi jail with a deep cut on his forehead.

Human rights groups have warned that such accusations are frequently wrong, endangering people with the wrong complexion. A video circulated among rebels showed the corpse of a dark-skinned man hanging from a meat hook, allegedly an African mercenary killed by angry locals.

The streets of rebel cities have become somewhat safer for people of sub-Saharan heritage since the chaotic early days of the rebellion, but observers say migrants can still get arrested or killed on the slightest pretext.

The task of bringing order to the rebel justice system will now fall to a local champion of human rights, Mohamed al-Allagi, an activist named on Monday as the interim government's new justice minister.

A rebel spokesman said Mr. al-Allagi's job will include overseeing the process of holding trials for the men captured by the rebellion in recent weeks.

"We do distinguished between dark-skinned people who work in building projects, and the others," said the spokesman, Abdul Hafiz Ghoga. "The African race is part of Libya and we do distinguish between those and the ones who are captured in the field, fighting against our young people."

The rebel council has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch to visit its prisoners, and both organizations say the rebels have been open to their suggestions about how to improve their detention system.

"I'm still very concerned about the African migrants here," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

During a recent visit to a prison in Benghazi where rebels are keeping suspected pro-Gadhafi fighters, Mr. Bouckaert said the majority were African migrant workers with documentation of their employment, mistakenly rounded up during hunts for mercenaries and pro-regime agents.

In one case, he said, an elderly man from Gambia told him that three young rebels broke into his house, raped his young wife, and beat him unconscious. He was jailed, with severe head injuries.

During a visit to the same prison on Monday, rebels told The Globe and Mail that the elderly man had been transferred to another facility.

But more recent arrivals also showed signs of mistreatment. The men from Mali, who said they worked for a Chinese construction firm, had minor injures: a bruised eye, a few small head wounds.

These were inflicted by the young rebels who captured them, they said, but they have not suffered at the prison itself. They complained that their jailers did not give them food or water for almost a day, after they endured a bruising 350-kilometre journey packed like luggage into a sport-utility vehicle.

"We are afraid, so afraid," said Ibrahima Diarra, 22, speaking softly in French and nervously glancing at a nearby guard to make sure he couldn't understand.

Wearing dress shoes and a polo shirt, Mr. Diarra did not look like a bloodthirsty mercenary. Still, guards cautioned against getting too close to him, clearly believing that he and his friends represented a grave security threat.

The rebels said they give all prisoners meals three times a day, prepared by a local restaurant. They also gave assurances that they would not harm their captives.

Those guarantees were not understood by the young men in the grimy holding cells, however, as they cowered together under thin blankets.

"We don't know if they will kill us," Mr. Diarra said.

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