LONDON Forces loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi have carried out a campaign of forced disappearances to try to crush opposition to his rule, human rights group Amnesty International said on Monday.
The rights group said it had compiled more than 30 cases of people who had disappeared, including political activists and people suspected of being rebel fighters or their supporters.
"It appears that there is a systematic policy to detain anyone suspected of opposition to Colonel Gaddafi's rule, hold them incommunicado, and transfer them to his strongholds in western Libya," Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.
"There is every reason to believe that these individuals are at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment," he said.
Amnesty International, which has had a fact-finding team in eastern Libya since February 26, called on Gaddafi to halt the alleged campaign of disappearances and to order his forces to abide by international law.
Emboldened by Western-led air strikes against Gaddafi's troops, rebels advanced west toward Gaddafi's birthplace of Sirte on Monday.
The rights group said disappearances began happening before protests against Gaddafi had turned into armed rebellion.
Atef "Abd al-Qader Al-Atrash, a prominent blogger, was last seen at a gathering near the port of the eastern city of Benghazi on February 17, when he is believed to have been seized by Gaddafi's forces.
"We kept trying to call his phone but never got through, until some days later when a man who spoke with a western (western Libyan) accent answered and said: "This is what happens to those who throw stones at us.' But Atef had never even thrown stones," Amnesty quoted an unidentified relative as saying.
CHILDREN AMONG MISSING
Amnesty quoted relatives and witnesses as saying that at least nine men and boys -- including four aged under 18 -- have been missing since February 20 when they visited a Benghazi compound used by the Kateeba al-Fadheel, a special forces unit loyal to Gaddafi, on the day it fell to opposition supporters.
The families of the nine, who include 14-year-old schoolboy, Hassan Mohammad al-Qata'ni, believe that their relatives were taken by forces loyal to Gaddafi when they left the compound.
"I haven't slept since he's gone missing, nobody in my family has slept. We are so worried. He is just a kid. We don't know what to do, where to look for him, who to turn to for help," Amnesty quoted an unnamed relative of Qata'ni as saying.
Amnesty said a number of people had gone missing in or near the town of Bin Jawad.
One source told the rights group that his relative was taken prisoner by Gaddafi's forces on March 6 in Bin Jawad but had been able to phone while being taken with dozens of others to the Kateeba al-Sa'idi military compound in Sirte.
Amnesty International said Gaddafi could be held responsible in an international court for any crimes committed by his forces. The U.N. Security Council has referred Libya's violent crackdown on protests to the International Criminal Court.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Diana Abdallah)