AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Human Rights Watch warned of the risk of “atrocities” and a terrible retribution on residents of the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi if the rebel stronghold is recaptured by Muammar Gaddafi’s troops.
Gaddafi’s forces launched air strikes on Benghazi on Thursday, and rebels reported fighting between the two sides in Ajdabiyah, south of the Benghazi.
“Our main concern is the extreme violence and potential for retribution by Gaddafi’s forces if he succeeds in retaking the area. This is a clarion call given the potential for very grave and very widespread abuses if he retakes Benghazi,” said Fred Abrahams, a special adviser to Human Rights Watch.
“He (Gaddafi) won’t hesitate to use violence against this rebellious city ... we’re simply saying that Benghazi and the eastern cities face the risk of serious violations, perhaps even atrocities.”
Human Rights Watch pulled its staff out of Benghazi on Wednesday, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Amnesty International, moving them to Tobruk.
But Abrahams said HRW had remained in contact with residents of Benghazi.
“We know that the rebels in Benghazi are better armed and more professional, not like the other young men who ran to the front. We know the people who started this will stay until the end, but people are deeply afraid. They know Gaddafi and they know this kind of rebellion can only end in victory or defeat.”
Donatella Rovera, a researcher for Amnesty International who moved from Benghazi to Tobruk on Wednesday, said that it had been impossible to contact residents in the town of Ajdabiyah.
“I’ve talked to people who have recently left Ajdabiyah and who say that the situation there is extremely tense. They are scared, there were hits around the town.”
Rovera said that when she left Benghazi on Wednesday morning “the situation was calm, nothing was happening in the town but there was news of stuff happening around. A lot of people have left Benghazi, and moved to Tobruk.”
Groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been gathering evidence of human rights abuses, citing sudden arrests, disappearances and deliberate killings of people who joined anti-Gaddafi protests as well as casual onlookers and migrant workers. Last week Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the Hague-based International Criminal Court who is investigating Gaddafi and his inner circle for alleged crimes against civilians carried out by the security forces, said he would welcome hearing Gaddafi’s version of events as part of his probe.
Moreno-Ocampo is due to advise the U.N. Security Council on May 4 of his progress with the investigation into suspected crimes against humanity.
He told Reuters last week that his office is investigating possible crimes against humanity and has received help from Interpol, satellite images to assess the situation on the ground, and eyewitness reports from people who had left Libya.
Reporting by Sara Webb; Editing by Giles Elgood