TRIPOLI Former French foreign minister Roland Dumas visited Libya as a lawyer to prepare a legal case on behalf of victims of NATO bombing and said he was prepared to defend leader Muammar Gaddafi if he is sent to The Hague.
Dumas, who served as foreign minister under socialist President Francois Mitterrand, said he had seen several civilian victims of NATO bombing in a hospital and had been told by a doctor there that there were as many as 20,000 more.
NATO says it has struck only military targets. Despite repeated promises by Gaddafi's media officials, Western journalists based in Tripoli have been shown no evidence of large numbers of civilians killed or injured by NATO bombing.
"This is brutal, brutal aggression against a sovereign country," Dumas told a news conference in a Tripoli luxury hotel on Sunday, attended by people introduced as family members and supporters of relatives of civilian casualties.
"At the moment we have been retained, we have a mandate on behalf of the victims of the military bombardment of NATO, who carried out their military action against civilians with the artificial -- very artificial -- cover of the United Nations," Dumas said.
"Following an approach by the government of Libya, we have decided to make this trip to see for ourselves the condition of the victims and the situation," he said.
"UNMASK THOSE ASSASSINS"
Dumas was accompanied by prominent French defense lawyer Jacques Verges, who said his goal was to "unmask those assassins" responsible for NATO air strikes. Verges said he had wept in hospital upon meeting civilians wounded "solely because they are Libyans."
Verges -- whose clients have included Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie -- and Dumas had been among lawyers expected to defend ousted Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, who is being investigated for alleged human rights abuses during the conflict sparked by the disputed 2010 presidential election.
Their names were dropped from the most recent list of Gbagbo's lawyers.
Dumas was not able to describe the exact nature of the case he intended to launch on behalf of the wounded victims, but told Reuters he would make a more detailed announcement after returning to France and studying the case in more depth.
The Western alliance is leading an air campaign against Libya under a United Nations resolution permitting force to prevent Gaddafi's forces from killing civilians.
Human rights groups say scores of people were killed by Gaddafi's forces cracking down on demonstrators before the air strikes began, and hundreds have since died as a result of government troops' siege of the rebel-held city of Misrata.
Dumas, long an opponent of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said he would be prepared to defend Gaddafi if the Libyan leader were forced to appear before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, although he described such a scenario as unlikely.
"If he asked me, yes, of course. Yes of course. (But) I don't think it is going to happen," he told Reuters.
The court's prosecutor has called for indictments against Gaddafi, one of Gaddafi's sons and the head of Libyan intelligence, for killing civilians and other offenses.
Libyan officials said Dumas and Verges had offered their services "as volunteers" to represent the civilian victims of NATO bombing. Dumas declined to say whether they planned to accept payment from Gaddafi's government for their services.
Asked if he had received money from Gaddafi's government, Dumas told Reuters: "No, no. Nothing for the moment."
Asked if that implied he would accept money from Gaddafi's government in the future, he said: "We are working as a lawyer. Like the English lawyer or the American lawyer. Okay?"
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)