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Libyan rebels can't find 'up to 50,000' political prisoners

The incoming administration says it can’t account for tens of thousands of people arrested for anti-Gaddafi protests.

Rebels in Tarhuna, south-east of Tripoli, display tanks they claim to have taken from pro-Gaddafi troops.
Rebels in Tarhuna, south-east of Tripoli, display tanks they claim to have taken from pro-Gaddafi troops.
Image: Gaia Anderson/AP

LIBYA’S REBEL COUNCIL says it fears for the fate of up to 50,000 people who were arrested for protesting against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi – as unmarked graves begin to emerge around Tripoli.

The Daily Telegraph says that while rebels believe as many as 60,000 people have been arrested in the past few months, as part of the attempted crackdown on anti-Gaddafi protests, only a few thousand have been liberated by rebels.

But with the National Transitional Council now in control over almost all of the capital – and indeed over almost all of the country – and with only 11,000 prisoners freed, it’s feared that many may have been killed while in captivity.

It’s thought that the missing prisoners may either still be in captivity, in underground bunkers which have yet to be discovered by the rebels, or that they have been killed.

The fears arise as rebels and foreign reporters uncover areas where dozens of bodies have been found; at least 53 charred bodies were found in one warehouse over the weekend, while the Telegraph said one of its own reporters had found 18 more bodies decomposing in a ditch.

Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani told a news conference that he was deeply concerned about the fate of the thousands who remain unaccounted for.

“Between 10,000 and 11,000 prisoners have been freed up until now – so where are the others?… It would be catastrophic if it turns out they were killed,” he said.

While Bani did not accuse the outgoing regime of killing the prisoners outright, human rights groups said they had seen evidence of state-sanctioned killing.

The worries come after the BBC learned that €2 billion has gone missing from the Libyan national wealth fund, which had seen much of its overseas assets and investments frozen in the midst of the uprising against Gaddafi.

The armed battles between rebels and pro-Gaddafi loyalists are continuing near the town of Sirte, where Gaddafi was born and where he may still be in hiding.

Deutsche Welle said the rebels were willing to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the city, though Xinhua said they had rejected an offer from Gaddafi to enter talks on a total surrender.

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Gavan Reilly

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