- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libyan rebels fighting to oust Col. Moammar Gadhafi have looted shops and clinics and torched the homes of suspected regime supporters in some of the towns they seized in the country’s western mountains, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.

The findings come as the rebels have enlarged the area under their control in the west and inched closer to a key supply route to Tripoli. NATO has been bombing Col. Gadhafi’s forces and military sites to enforce a U.N. resolution to protect civilians. Still, the civil war has fallen into a virtual stalemate, with neither side able to make significant progress in recent weeks.

The Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews with local fighters and residents, said that after seizing towns, rebel forces burned down a number of homes believed to belong to Gadhafi supporters and carted out supplies from stores and medical facilities.

In the village of Qawalish, for example, which rebel forces seized July 6, the group reported seeing five houses on fire and a group of armed rebels loading up their truck with supplies taken from a shop. A few days later, nine more houses were set alight.

HRW said clinics in three other towns had been looted and vandalized.

“We basically took everything,” a rebel medic in Awaniya told the New York-based group.

The alleged violations by the rebel fighters, mostly armed civilian volunteers with a loose command structure, raises concerns about retaliatory violence as Col. Gadhafi clings to power from his base in the capital, Tripoli.

Rights groups have accused Col. Gadhafi’s forces of violations, too, including indiscriminately shelling civilian areas, abusing detainees and laying land mines.

Since the uprising seeking to end Col. Gadhafi’s 42-year rule broke out in mid-February, armed rebels have seized control of much of the country’s east, where they’ve set up an administration in Benghazi. They also control the coastal city of Misrata and much of the Nafusa mountain range southwest of Tripoli.

HRW called on rebel commanders to hold their forces responsible for damaging civilian property.

“Opposition forces have an obligation to protect civilians and their property in the areas they control so people feel they can return home safely and rebuild their lives,” said Joe Stork, the group’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director.

Rebel commanders could not be immediately reached for comment.

HRW quoted one commander as acknowledging that some abuses had taken place, but denying that such acts were policy.

“If we hadn’t issued directives, people would have burned these towns down to the ground,” the group quoted Col. El-Moktar Firnana as saying._

Hubbard reported from Cairo.

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