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One of the claims we've been hearing out of Libya is that Moammar Gadhafi has been using mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa to wage indiscriminate shooting attacks on protesters. Those claims point to Moammar Gadhafi's long relationship with the rest of the continent.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton investigates.

OFEIBA QUIST-ARCTON: Brother leader, guide of the revolution, and king of kings are some of the titles by which Moammar Gadhafi prefers to be addressed in Africa. Libya's relationship with the continent proper received a boost in the 1980s and '90s, when Gadhafi turned his attention to wooing and winning over Africa.

His critics accuse Gadhafi of using the continent like his private fiefdom, meddling in Africa's conflicts, training its rebels, and recruiting Africans to join his security forces.

Adam Thiam is a political analyst and journalist from Mali, home to nomadic Tuaregs who also live in other Sahara Desert nations.

Mr. ADAM THIAM (Journalist): What I know is that thousands of Tuaregs who were enrolled in the army of Gadhafi were demobilized in the '90s.

QUIST-ARCTON: But, says Thiam, some fighters some stayed behind.

Mr. THIAM: Ten thousand - that's the figure which was given to us at that time - remained in Libya and they are enrolled in Libyan security forces. And I was told that 600 of them was forming the special unit in Benghazi and probably part of this group was used in the repression of the Benghazi movement.

QUIST-ARCTON: That was in eastern Libya, where the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi began.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

QUIST-ARCTON: Little can be confirmed on the ground, but Libyans have been sending out information, images and grainy video clips on social networks, like this gunfire thought to have been recorded in the heart of the capital, Tripoli, this week.

This deeply distressed woman, who asked not to be identified, told BBC brutal tactics were being used in the crackdown by Gadhafi loyalists. She and many others say mercenaries, speaking foreign languages, opened fire on young protesters like her cousin.

Unidentified Woman: He got killed, he got killed by the Africans. They shot him. Four bullets. We're getting shot at and we have no protection. We have nothing.

QUIST-ARCTON: Full of emotion, the woman railed at Gadhafi.

Unidentified Woman: What kind of person brings people from outside of his own country to kill people in their country? If he claims to be Libyan, how can he bring people from outside to shoot and kill? And he knows that his people, they have nothing - not even just weapons.

QUIST-ARCTON: It's hard to separate fact from fable regarding the definition of foreign fighters, or whether such hired guns would be part of an elite unit built up over the years, all fresh recruits. Plus, there's confusion about where in Africa they may come from. Their origins vary, from Mali to Niger, Chad and Sudan. All these countries have been mentioned. The reality is hard to pin down, says Arab affairs specialist Mohamed Yahya.

Mr. MOHAMED YAHYA (Arab Affairs Specialist): The first we've heard about the use of foreign mercenaries was last Friday - that the government has been getting African mercenaries and telling them that they are fighting foreigners, that foreigners have invaded Libya. Now, of course we couldn't verify it or confirm it in any way.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thiam, the Malian political analyst, warns that whether they are leftovers from regional civil wars in West Africa or the Sahel, these presumed foreign fighters could spell trouble for countries like his, if Gadhafi is swept out of power in Libya.

Mr. THIAM: That is exactly what is worrying us in Mali. In case Colonel Gadhafi goes, we don't know what will happen to 10,000 armed Tuaregs living in Libya. I mean, the likelihood for them to come back to Mali is so high that(ph) it's frightening.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

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