THE scene of what was very nearly another crime against humanity by the Gaddafi regime lies inside a high-walled government compound where the southern fringes of Ajdabiya peter out into rocky desert.
Hussam Matar, 50, the owner of an oil services company, took The Times there. He led us in through the green steel gates to a row of huge, empty food warehouses.
In the middle one he showed us where, last Saturday, he found 80 young male prisoners left to die by government troops who had fled Ajdabiya the previous night. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what I saw,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what the regime does to its own people.”
Fifteen of the prisoners were locked inside a tiny, windowless room. The rest were in a back corner of the building. All were bound hand and foot with plastic. They were lying in their excrement. They said they had had nothing to eat or drink for three days.
“If we hadn’t found them they’d have died,” said Fateh Abed al-Rahman, 27, another of the group that came across them. “This is no way to treat human beings. The regime are terrorists.”
Amnesty International published a report yesterday citing 30 cases of rebel activists or fighters being abducted by government troops in an attempt to crush the uprising against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, but said that these were only a small proportion of the total number over the past few weeks. The evidence from Ajdabiya suggests that the number of disappeared could be even higher than Amnesty suspects.
Government troops had occupied the town for 11 days before being forced to flee by a combination of allied airstrikes and encroaching rebel forces. By that time so many people were missing that search parties were organised.
Mr Matar’s team of five began work at 6am on Saturday, visiting every building the troops had occupied. It was 11.30am before they reached the warehouses. Even then they nearly missed the prisoners because they kept silent, believing that the heavily armed searchers were government loyalists. “They didn’t shout. They were scared to death,” Mr al-Rahman said.
The men were all of fighting age, though a few were teenagers. They had been seized on the streets of Ajdabiya, or brought here from the western fringes of Benghazi, the high-water mark of the government advance. Three had been taken from Ajdabiya’s hospital and had gunshot wounds.
Elsewhere in the town distraught people were hunting for lost relatives. Ibrahim Mohammed Omar, 43, a citizen of Chad, said that he had not seen his sister and four brothers since they were abducted by government troops last Friday.
Several people told The Times that soldiers seized about 60 men, women and children from the Al-Beit al-Mamour mosque last Wednesday and were taking them to Sirte, presumably as hostages, when they ran out of petrol in Brega, 80km south of Ajdabiya. They let them go.
Amnesty warned of a “systematic policy to detain anyone suspected of opposition to Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, hold them incommunicado, and transfer them to his strongholds … Given the circumstances of their enforced disappearance there is every reason to believe that these individuals are at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment.”
In Ajdabiya the soldiers got what some would consider their just deserts. A few hundred yards from the warehouses is the city’s southern gate.
All around it lie the charred remains of a dozen tanks struck by coalition warplanes last Friday night. The townsfolk had the decency to bury the soldiers in the cemetery, albeit in a mass grave.