SURVIVORS of a massacre in which at least 55 Libyan prisoners were herded into a barn, machine-gunned and set alight by regime loyalists have described how one of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s sons visited the site last week, hours before the order was given to execute the men.
“Khamis Gaddafi was here just before the killings,” said Mustafa Abdullah El Hitri, a 27-year-old lawyer who escaped death by hiding under the bodies of his friends and later fleeing with the help of a guard.
“I saw him standing in the middle of the yard with his security detail and two commanders as I was taken from a prison van and marched into the barn. He was giving orders to his men.”
The atrocity, one of the worst documented during Libya’s revolution so far and part of an escalating trend of vengeance and retribution, may include as many as 140 victims once two suspected mass graves at the scene have been excavated.
It occurred early on Tuesday evening in a yard used to store farm machinery in the Yarmouk area of Tripoli’s Salahuddin district, adjacent to the capital’s largest military headquarters, “Leewa 32”, the command centre run by Khamis.
Up to 150 civilians suspected of supporting the rebels were being held there and had already endured days of protracted beatings and torture, including electrocution, during their captivity. Mr Hitri, who was rounded up on the street as he was walking home and imprisoned in the yard four days before the massacre, said that his torturers included three women.
“A uniformed woman commander called Nooriya, along with two other female officers, arrived in the yard one morning,” he said. “I was pulled out of the van with others prisoners and made to stand, held upright by guards, as Nooriya and the other two women kicked us repeatedly in our genitals while they screamed at us ‘your seed will give Libya no more children’.”
The guards were ordered to kill the men on Tuesday, apparently as an act of vengeance by regime officers, after news spread that Colonel Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziya compound had been captured by rebels in the city centre.
“The guards were enraged when they heard of Bab al-Aziya’s fall and decided to kill everyone here,” said Abdul Basit, 42, a witness whose house overlooked the killing ground and whose own brother was among the dead. “It happened shortly after sundown as we were breaking our Ramadan fast. About 30 soldiers walked outside the yard yelling ‘Muammar, Muammar’ to mask the sound of the shooting while in the yard other guards opened the barn doors and began firing on the detainees and throwing grenades.”
I was taken to the execution scene – abandoned by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces on Friday night as rebels advanced through the area – by local doctors and fighters. I counted the burnt skeletons of 55 men inside the barn, some of whom appeared to have been clawing at the walls to escape. A further seven bodies – all of males in civilian clothing, killed by gunshots – lay around the yard, while three other corpses lay in nearby alleys.
“There are about 65 bodies in all either in the barn or yard,” said Dr Salem, a local resident. “But we know for a fact that there were more than 150 prisoners in the barn when the firing started and that only about ten escaped. What has been done with the other bodies?” Two areas of freshly bulldozed earth in the yard had been piled over a patch of ground, suggesting the presence of further mass graves there. They are due to be excavated this week.
Between seven and ten men survived the massacre. Lying beneath the dead, they were encouraged to make a run for it by a guard named as Abdul Razak, who opened the barn doors while the execution detail went to reload their weapons.
“Abdul Razak was one of them but he seemed sickened by the killing and told us to flee,” Mustafa recounted at the scene, where he had gone to look for other survivors. “He opened the barn doors and told anyone still alive to run for it.”
At least three men made it to a local mosque, where they were sheltered during the follow-on search by Colonel Gaddafi’s militia. Others were hidden by local families. Three are now being treated for their wounds in the city’s main hospital, where their accounts are likely to provide the backbone of evidence being collated by war crimes investigators from the International Criminal Court to bring charges against Colonel Gaddafi and his sons for war crimes.
The Yarmouk yard had been used since June as an ad hoc detention centre for prisoners suspected of pro-rebel sympathies. The detainees were guarded by a regular detail of 13 guards, a combination of paramilitaries from Colonel Gaddafi’s Khamis Khatiba as well as civilian loyalist volunteer fighters, which at times was supplemented by up to 30 other militiamen. Some prisoners were held in the barn throughout their captivity, while others were crammed into prison vans in the yard.
“There were three of us jammed into each of the ten cells in the vans,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jamal Rabbani, an army officer imprisoned there. “We were given only half a litre of water each and stale bread each day. They made us crawl around the yard on all fours every morning and afternoon and bark like dogs as they beat us with batons, clubs and rifles.”
More than 10,000 prisoners held by the Gaddafi regime have been released since the rebels captured Tripoli, but nearly 50,000 are still missing and unaccounted for, a rebel military spokesman said yesterday.