Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s troops in and around the rebel-held western Libyan city of Misrata have been issued gas masks, a sign that the regime may be preparing to use chemical weapons, rebels told The Washington Times on Wednesday.
The regime is thought to have about 9 tons of poisonous mustard gas at a secret desert location near Col. Gadhafi’s hometown, Sirte, multiple sources in Libya said.
Meanwhile, in New York, a special prosecutor for the International Criminal Court appeared before the U.N. Security Council to describe what he called “evidence” of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilians by Col. Gadhafi’s forces.
Rebels received what they called reliable eyewitness accounts from Misrata residents who reported seeing gas masks distributed to Col. Gadhafi’s forces, said Mohamed, a spokesman in Misrata who asked that his last name be withheld.
“We have alerted the town to that fact and what Gadhafi could be up to,” Mohamed said. “We don’t have gas masks. We don’t know how to deal with this, but we will defend our city with our lives.”
Over the past week, pro-Gadhafi forces have retreated to the town of Zliten, situated to Misrata’s west. The troops, which suffered heavy losses under a barrage of NATO airstrikes and rebel fire, are now being commanded by one of Col. Gadhafi’s sons, Al-Mutasim Gadhafi.
“Al-Mutasim is just as brutal as his father and quite capable of using chemical weapons,” said Mohamed, the rebel spokesman.
Former Libyan officials, including Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, who served as the regime’s ambassador to the United Nations, have warned that Col. Gadhafi might use chemical weapons against the rebels.
In a meeting with a Libyan official in March, Ahmet Uzumci, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, expressed concern about the status of Libya’s stockpile of chemical weapons. The weapons are supposed to be destroyed in accordance with Libya’s obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Libyan representative, Ahmed Hassan Ahmed Walid, told Mr. Uzumci that “the situation regarding the chemical weapons to be destroyed remains unchanged and under control,” according to a statement from Mr. Uzumci’s organization.
Libya announced on Dec. 19, 2003, that it would dismantle its weapons-of-mass-destruction and ballistic-missile programs.
There is already evidence that the regime’s forces fired cluster bombs at a residential area in Misrata last month, according to rebels and human rights groups.
They said they also have collected evidence of crimes against humanity by the Gadhafi regime, such as the indiscriminate killings of civilians, including infants and the elderly, rapes of women and men, torture and kidnappings.
“Gadhafi has used every conceivable and inconceivable weapon against the people of Misrata,” said Mohamed, the rebel spokesman.
The regime has used tanks to attack houses and civilians. Pro-Gadhafi snipers have been given orders to kill anything that moves. Even cats were killed for sport, according to rebels.
According to multiple rebel estimates, pro-Gadhafi forces have kidnapped more than 1,000 people in Misrata, sometimes taking entire families. Some were later seen on state TV, forced to chant slogans in support of Col. Gadhafi. Some managed to escape.
Burn marks, bruises and bullet injuries on their bodies are gruesome testimony to the torture by the regime, said Abdelbassit Abumzirig, a Libyan lawyer and spokesman for the Movement of Feb. 17, a rebel organization.
“One person can’t speak because he suffered a mental breakdown after witnessing his friend being tortured to death,” he added.
The rebels say children have been taken from their homes and schools and put on the front lines as human shields against the rebels.
In cities of Ajdabiya and Zawiya, human rights groups have received evidence of women being raped in the presence of their husbands and children.
Rebels have found bottles of Viagra and condoms on pro-Gadhafi soldiers, proof they say of an orchestrated campaign of rape.
Nadya Khalife, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said some women and girls in the Western Mountains region of Libya, particularly from the cities of Zintan and Nalut, fled their homes to avoid advancing pro-Gadhafi forces after hearing of incidents of rape in other cities.
Human rights groups and lawyers are finding it difficult to document rape cases. Although these acts are reported soon after their occurrence, the victims withdraw their testimony in a majority of cases because they worry that they will be ostracized by society.
“In Libya, people who have been raped see themselves not as a victim, but as a criminal,” said a Paris-based lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the matter.
Some rape victims have committed suicide; others have left their hometowns.
In the Western Mountains, residents - most of them ethnic-minority Amazigh - are being starved by the regime’s siege, eyewitness told The Washington Times. Electricity to the mountain cities, towns and villages has also been cut off.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the special prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, also told the Security Council that he will seek arrest warrants against three Libyans suspected of the “greatest criminal responsibility” for crimes against humanity.
He declined to name the three officials. However, Libyan lawyers in Paris, London and Libya who have gathered some of the evidence of atrocities told The Times that Col. Gadhafi and two of his sons, Seif al-Islam and Khamis, are likely targets.
“The people of interest are the obvious ones,” said a Libyan lawyer based in London who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive nature of the matter.
Col. Gadhafi and Seif al-Islam have delivered provocative speeches on Libyan state TV since the start of the uprising, in which they virtually instructed their supporters on how to deal with the rebels, she said.
Khamis Gadhafi leads the elite Khamis Brigade, which has been responsible for brutal attacks on poorly armed rebels and unarmed civilians.
Mr. Moreno-Ocampo said the regime tried to cover up its crimes, making it difficult to ascertain the precise number of victims. But, he added, there was credible evidence that 500 to 700 people had been fatally shot in February alone.
“The evidence collected establishes reasonable grounds to believe that widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population have been and continue to be committed in Libya, including murder and persecution as crimes against humanity,” he said.