SIRTE (Reuters) - Residents returning to Sirte are accusing Libyan interim government fighters of demolishing and looting homes, shops and public buildings in Muammar Gaddafi’s home town to take revenge for its support of the fugitive leader.
“They envy and hate us because Muammar is from here. But we are just civilians. The revolutionaries are coming here for revenge and destruction,” said a Sirte resident who did not want to be named. “We didn’t resist in this neighborhood so why did they destroy our homes?”
Inspecting the damage to her house, she said that Sirte would never go back to how it used to be. “There is no security here anymore,” she told Reuters.
Doors were broken, clothes strewn across the floor, furniture knocked over. The smoke lingering over the city from the continued fighting could be seen through a hole in the wall.
Several residents said that looting had made them bitter toward the revolution that ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. Some saw it as a way to even the score with them for living relatively comfortably under the ousted leader.
“Are you coming to liberate the city or to steal from it?” said Ahmed, another resident, inside his house. “If I knew this would happen I would not have left. I would have stayed and fought for my house.”
Many residents who fled the fighting have been returning to the town now that forces loyal to the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) have hemmed still resisting Gaddafi loyalists into a small area.
They found almost every house and building either damaged by a rocket or mortar, burned out or riddled with bullets. Water floods the streets and the city’s infrastructure is in tatters.
The devastation is similar to that suffered by some other cities in Libya during the war. But the ferociousness of the bombardment of Sirte and the burning of homes that belong to Gaddafi family members and supporters has raised suspicions that some fighters loyal to the NTC are looking for reprisals.
A luxurious home belonging to Aisha, Gaddafi’s daughter, was set on fire. The walls were destroyed after they were sprayed by bullets. Black smoke rose from houses that fighters loyal to the NTC said had belonged to Gaddafi’s friends.
“What’s happening in Sirte is revenge not liberation. When someone comes and takes your personal car and destroys your home, this is not liberation,” said Abu Anas, a Sirte resident who returned to his house to pick up belongings and found that it had been looted.
“What are they liberating us from? We want Muammar,” shouted another female resident standing nearby as other locals gathered, each loudly lambasting the new government.
“Some revolutionaries passed by us when we were sitting outside the house and told us ‘wait, you didn’t see anything yet’,” Mohammed, another Sirte resident said.
NTC fighters say they are only checking houses for weapons being used by pro-Gaddafi forces.
But Reuters reporters saw many of them roaming the streets of Sirte with chairs, tyres and computers on the backs of their pickup trucks. Brand new BMW and Toyota cars were seen being driven away by the fighters and being towed outside of the city.
One fighter tried to push a white Porsche car up a street as another drove a looted beach buggy nearby.
In another incident witnessed by Reuters, a group of fighters fired machine guns at an iron safe in an electronics shop. After 15 minutes of shooting, during which they considered trying a hand grenade, they finally opened it. It was empty.
Waleed Mouftah, an NTC field commander, said that armed groups have infiltrated NTC brigades and it was those groups that were looting buildings and stealing from residents.
He did not explain who these armed groups were but estimated their numbers at more than 200, said they had NTC identification cards and that they had been setting up fake checkpoints inside the city to steal cars.
Many Libyans, especially from the western city of Misrata, which was wrecked by a bombardment from Gaddafi forces during the war, believe that fighters from Misrata are getting even with the people of Sirte for defending Gaddafi.
Stories of murder and rape by Gaddafi troops in Misrata are being told behind closed doors and fuelling the anger of many Libyan men.
“Let me tell you one thing. The people of Sirte are Bedouins and the Bedouin man does not forget to avenge injustice,” said a man who identified himself as Abu Fatma.
“We will not forget what happened in Sirte. We will not forgive and will not allow anyone from Benghazi or Misrata to enter Sirte again.”
Editing by Barry Malone and Myra MacDonald