TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Residents of Tripoli dug makeshift graves to bury the dead as evidence emerged of widespread summary killings during the battle for the Libyan capital.
A week after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the stench of decomposing bodies and burning garbage hung over the city as it faced a major humanitarian crisis due to collapsing water and power supplies, shortages of medicine and no effective government.
In a sign of continuing instability in the city, bursts of heavy machine gun fire could be heard overnight.
The rebels now in control of most of Tripoli vowed to take Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte by force if negotiations with loyalists in one of their last strongholds there failed.
As the fighting ebbed away in the capital, more and more bodies were found. Some were Gaddafi soldiers who perished, while others appeared to have been executed. Still more were found in the grounds of a hospital abandoned by its doctors.
The charred remains of around 53 people have been found in a warehouse in Tripoli, apparently opponents of Gaddafi who were executed as his rule collapsed, Britain’s Sky News reported on Saturday.
Sky broadcast pictures of a heap of burned skeletons, still smouldering, in an agricultural warehouse, where the victims were apparently prisoners.
In the Tajoura district of the capital, local people prepared a mass grave for the bodies of 22 African men who appeared to have been recruited to fight for Gaddafi. One of the dead had his hands tied behind his back.
“The rebels asked them to surrender but they refused,” said resident Haitham Mohammed Khat’ei.
“Residents of the neighbourhood decided to bury them in accordance with Islamic law,” he told Reuters.
Reports of cold-blooded killings by both sides have surfaced in the last few days, darkening the atmosphere in a city where many had greeted Gaddafi’s fall with joy.
In a sign of the lawlessness now gripping parts of the capital, one of Gaddafi’s villas lay looted and abandoned, torn pictures of the fugitive leader scattered in its grounds.
Gaddafi’s own whereabouts remain unknown — rebels hunting him say the war will not end until the 69-year-old colonel, who kept Libya in his grip for 42 years, is captured or killed.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), told reporters in Benghazi: “We have no factual report about the whereabouts of Gaddafi and his sons.”
The NTC, which has told its fighters not to carry out revenge killings, is trying to assert its authority and restore order in Tripoli but its top officials have yet to move there from their Benghazi headquarters in the east.
Abdel Jalil said the water and electricity cuts were the result of sabotage by Gaddafi loyalists.
“There is a stockpile of food and medicine but the strategic stockpile is for a normal period and now we are in exceptional circumstances which require double and triple the amounts,” he said. “Food is even a higher priority than security.”
Rebel commanders are still negotiating with Gaddafi loyalists to try to persuade them to surrender control over the coastal city of Sirte, Abdel Jalil said.
Libya is effectively cut in two by pro-Gaddafi forces holding territory stretching southwards from Sirte, 450 km (300 miles) east of the capital, deep into the desert.
A rebel commander said forces advancing from the east had reached the edge of Bin Jawad, a town about 140 km (90 miles) from Sirte.
“We are waiting for the people in Sirte to come out and talk but we’ve got no answer up to now. I’ve been waiting for three days,” the commander, Fawzi Bukatif, told Reuters.
With rebel forces approaching from east and west, Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte could retreat into the desert and try to reach Sabha, another Gaddafi stronghold far to the south.
“If they pull south to Sabha, we’ll follow them. We’re determined to clear the whole country,” said Bukatif.
The rebels, still a long way from Sirte, have been using artillery backed by NATO air strikes on the town.
Far to the west, rebels were in control of Ras Jdir, the main border crossing with Tunisia, after clashing with pro-Gaddafi forces on Friday, but there was almost no traffic through what is usually a lifeline for food, fuel and medical supplies for Tripoli.
Also in the west, rebels seized the small desert town of Jmayl, home of Gaddafi’s prime minister, who has left the country. [nL5E7JR0AK]
Nearby in the port of Zuwara about 160 km (100 miles) west of Tripoli, a ship carrying ammunition for the rebels exploded and rebels pointed the finger at Gaddafi saboteurs.
“The fifth column, they blew up a boat carrying ammunition and bombs and then ran off,” said Salah Al-Tahar, a rebel fighter.
The NTC and the Western powers that backed rebel forces with a five-month bombing campaign are acutely aware of the need to prevent Libya collapsing into the kind of chaos that plagued Iraq for years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
Life remains far from normal in Tripoli, whose two million people are grappling with a breakdown in basic services, even as many of them celebrate the overthrow of a hated leader.
In one hospital, wounded patients lay on bare mattresses in bloodsoaked bandages amid a stench of blood and sweat. None was on an intravenous drip, although many had lost blood.
“There are widespread shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies, particularly in the Nafusa Mountains and Tripoli,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York.
NTC spokesman Shammam said the council wanted staff at the National Oil Corporation, the de facto energy ministry, to get back to work and tackle shortages of petrol, fuel oil and gas.
But a senior rebel oil official said the country’s five oil refineries were all currently out of action.
In Tripoli, stinking garbage was piled high in the streets. In some districts, people set it on fire to stave off disease.
Electricity and running water were scarce. Residents carried containers to mosques, which often have wells, hoping to fill up. Outside one mosque, a sign read: “No water left.”
Dozens of decomposing bodies still lay in and around a hospital in Abu Salim that was abandoned by medical staff during the fighting. It was not clear how they had died.
Five bloated bodies lay on trolleys at the entrance to the emergency department, while 25 lay in the garden, wrapped in rugs and sprinkled with lime in a vain attempt to keep down the smell.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Ras Jdir, Robert Birsel in Ras Lanuf, Emma Farge and Alex Dziadosz in Benghazi, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers and Adrian Croft in London; Writing by Giles Elgood, editing by Andrew Heavens