Libyan Civilians Trapped In The Battle For Sirte

The Libyan National Transitional Council says its fighters now control most of the Gadhafi stronghold of Sirte. The battle for the city has been bloody, with civilians caught in the middle and accusations of brutality on both sides.

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Rebel fighters now control most of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown. They blasted their way into Sirte during one of the bloodiest battles of Libyan civil war with civilians caught in the middle and accusations of brutality on both sides. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was in Sirte yesterday. And we advise you that some people will find the details of her four-minute report disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The sickly sweet smell of death wafts over this area of farmhouses, the scene of raging fire fights.

We're on the very frontlines of the battle here. And as the rebels have moved forward, they've made gruesome discoveries. Right in front of me is one of the three massacre sites that they've uncovered. And the bodies are swarming with flies. They're bloated with death. But what is really striking here is that they were clearly executed. Many of these men were executed while on their knees. They are face-down in the ground with their hands tied behind their backs.

AHMED JUMA: About four days ago, actually, they were killed, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fighter Ahmed Juma points to another site down a dirt road where more bodies are strewn around the yard. They also appear to have been there for several days, indicating Gadhafi loyalists killed them. They're all dressed in civilian clothing and they're all men. The two sites have about 25 bodies in total. Juma says all those killed here were civilians, though it's hard to know what exactly happened.

JUMA: This is a massacre really. It's really horrible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's not only Gadhafi's fighters who are being accused of targeting civilians in Sirte. In another neighborhood, anti-Gadhafi fighters are pounding the last few loyalist positions. The fighting is taking place in a residential area and the Transitional National Council forces are hitting it with everything they have. Black smoke billows in the air. Sirte is burning.

ABU BAKER HAMID: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fighter Abu Baker Hamid says Sirte was given everything by Gadhafi. Everyone else was treated like second or third class citizens. The loyalists here have raped and killed and robbed us and that's why we must finish this he says.

They are close to doing that, but it's come at a high cost for the people of Sirte. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both released reports accusing TNC fighters of targeting civilians in Sirte and dealing harshly with suspected loyalists, including using torture to extract confessions.

On the side of the road, a group of women and men from Sudan huddle together. They have just fled their homes in Sirte and describe vicious battles and despair.

SAFA SULTAN: No. No food, no light, no anything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Safa Sultan. She says she and her family have been hiding in a basement, afraid to come out. She says they've been surviving on dried goods like pasta and rice. She hasn't had fresh food for weeks, she says.

SULTAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Continuing in Arabic, she says there was no gas to fuel her car and so she was trapped because none of those fleeing would help take them out.

Sub-Saharan Africans are among the most vulnerable here. They've been attacked and their women raped because of fears of being suspected mercenaries in Libya. Safa says she doesn't know what will happen to them now.

At another checkpoint, Libyan Faraj Lawayed is with 13 members of his family stuffed into two cars. They siphoned just enough gas to get them out of Sirte.

FARAJ LAWAYED: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says a few days ago, 20 families tried to flee Sirte but Gadhafi's loyalists shot at them, killing one man and injuring another. They were all forced to go back.

LAWAYED: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's terrifying, he says. All the streets are empty and there is shooting everywhere.

But it's not clear what kind of reception they'll get in other parts of Libya. The city of Misrata, which is the closest urban center to Sirte, is not allowing those fleeing the fighting to seek refuge there. The people of Sirte garner little sympathy. They are seen as having benefited from Gadhafi's largesse.

Their cars laden with belongings, dozens of people at a checkpoint wait to be processed just outside Misrata. Men hand over their I.D.s, and their names are checked in a database of suspected loyalists.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This fighter from Misrata says they have 10,000 names on the list of people who will be arrested if found. If the Sirte residents are cleared, those who don't have friends or family in the area are put in a convoy and escorted under armed guard, through Misrata, and deposited on the other side of the city, barred from turning back. Many of the Sirte residents don't know where they'll end up or when, if ever, they will be able to return to their homes.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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