The Headless Corpse, the Mass Grave and Worrying Questions About Libya's Rebel Army

The five corpses floated disfigured and bloating in the murky bottom of the water tank. Wearing green soldiers' uniforms, the men lay belly down, decomposing in the putrid water.

By Ruth Sherlock, Al-Qawalish

July 21, 2011 "
The Telegraph" - -The streaks of blood, smeared along the sides of this impromptu mass grave suggested a rushed operation, a hurried attempt to dispose of the victims.

Who the men were and what happened to them, close to the Libyan rebels' western front line town of Al-Qawalish in the Nafusa Mountains, remains unknown.

But the evidence of a brutal end were clear. One of the corpses had been cleanly decapitated, while the trousers of another had been ripped down to his ankles, a way of humiliating a dead enemy.

The green uniforms were the same as those worn by loyalists fighting for Col. Muammer Gaddafi in Libya's civil war. No one from the rebel side claimed the corpses, or declared their loved ones missing.

There was no funeral, or call to the media by the rebels to see the 'atrocities committed by the regime'.

Since the bodies were seen by the Daily Telegraph attempts to discover their identities have been unsuccessful, in part because of obstruction by rebel authorities in the area. Having highlighted the discovery to those authorities the area was subsequently bulldozed and the bodies dissappeared.

The find will add to concerns highlighted in recent days over human rights violations by rebel forces. Human Rights Watch last week said that had looted homes, shops and hospitals and beaten captives as they advanced.

The Daily Telegraph found homes in the village of al-Awaniya ransacked, and shops and schools smashed and looted. The town, now empty, was inhabited by the Mashaashia, a traditionally loyalist tribe that has long been involved in land disputes with surrounding towns.

Human rights groups fear that reprisals may get worse as the rebels advance on towns nearer the capital such as Al-Sabaa and Gheryan which are loyalist strongholds.

The author of the HRW report, Sidney Kwiram, last night called on rebel leaders to investigate the latest find. "It is critical that the authorities investigate what happened to these five men."

The bodies were discovered in a water tank just off the main road between Zintan, the main town in the area, and Al-Qawalish as the rebels consolidated their advance.

At the time, rebel commanders, including former government troops who had defected, claimed that the men were most probably killed by Col Gaddafi forces for trying to defect - a common allegation.

"The day of our first assault on Al Qawalish we found the bodies there, and they were already in bad shape," said Col. Osama Ojweli, the military coordinator for the region.

"This is not unusual in Gaddafi's army. In other battles we have found men, their hands tied behind their backs with dusty wire and executed – we found them shot in the head by the regime."

A colonel, who defected last month and cannot be named, said: "If they think you might leave, they will shoot you." His claim was backed up by loyalists captured and held prisoner in the nearby town of Yafran.

But suspicions have been raised after the rebel authorities disposed of the bodies and bull-dozed the site where they were found.

Drivers also said they had military orders not to take journalists to the site. "If you go there I will ditch you in the desert," the driver of another news organisation reportedly said.

The rebel army is aware that NATO intervention on their side was justified by concern at regime human rights abuses in western capitals.

The Libyan Transitional National Council has now flown officials, including Abdulbaset Abumzirig, deputy minister of justice, to the Nafusa to investigate abuse claims.

"From what I have seen they are treating prisoners very well," he said. "We have promised to hand them back to their families after the war."

But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both said there were documented cases of extra-judicial killings by rebel forces, including deaths in custody under torture.

In particular, in the early phases of the uprising, loyalists and sub-Saharan Africans accused of being mercenaries were lynched. Since then, men in rebel-held areas suspected of being members of Col Gaddafi's security services have been taken from the homes, and subsequently found dead with their hands tied.

Both organisations say these are not on the scale of the abuses perpetrated by the regime. "We have come across a number of cases of executions of suspected Gaddafi fighters in both the east and the west," said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of HRW.

"I does fit a consistent pattern, though I don't think these killings are authorised by the rebel authorities in Benghazi."

Diana Eltahawy, of Amnesty, said members of the Transitional National Council, the rebel government, had admitted to there being a problem with some of their troops but had not done enough to tackle it.

"There is no comparison with the Gaddafi side. But the concern is that there is not sufficient will to address this in the leadership," she said. "It needs to be stopped before it becomes worse."