War Crimes Charged As Misrata Battles

Originally published on May 8, 2011 9:13 am
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The struggle for the western Libyan city of Misrata continues today amid reports that war crimes have been committed by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. The city's been under siege for more two months, and the brutal fighting has left hundreds of civilians dead or injured.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now from the eastern city of Benghazi. Lourdes, thanks so much for being with us.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.You're welcome.

SIMON: There have been reports of mines being dropped in the harbor around Misrata, by Gadhafi forces. What do you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If you'll recall, the harbor was shut earlier in the week because of Gadhafi sea mines. NPR was sent images of what was dropped this time, and they appear to be artillery-delivered land mines with parachutes attached, that landed around the harbor area.

They're seemingly Chinese made. It's reminiscent, if you'll recall, of the use earlier of cluster bombs by the Gadhafi regime. The harbor is so important for Misrata. It is where humanitarian aid comes in and out of. It is also where refugees flee from.

Scott, I'm going to try and put this in perspective for you. Yes, Misrata is a city that has armed rebels in it, but this is also a city that has civilians and refugees. On Thursday, the International Organization for Migration sent a humanitarian aid ship to evacuate African migrants and bring in purely humanitarian aid. And that ship was repeatedly targeted by rockets.

Five African migrants, including two young children, were killed. The international criminal court announced this week that it will issue arrest warrants against at least three regime figures on suspicions of crimes against humanity. And front and center, we believe, will be charges that in Misrata, they are really trying to target civilians.

SIMON: Amnesty International has also issued a report, saying that what's happening in Misrata amounts to war crimes. What does it say?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. Amnesty International delivered a report yesterday, where it said that Gadhafi's forces may have committed war crimes in Misrata by deliberately targeting civilians with indiscriminate fire. They said Gadhafi forces had used Grad rockets, mortars, artillery shells. And under international humanitarian law, Amnesty says none of these weapons should be used in populated, residential areas.

And so another condemnation of how Gadhafi and his regime are targeting Misrata.

SIMON: And Lourdes, help us understand what's going on in the far west of the country, where fighting is also going on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, there's fighting going on, you know, all over Libya right now. But certainly, some of the fiercest fighting is taking place near the Tunisian border, actually on the Tunisian border. Gadhafi forces fired artillery shells into Tunisia today in the town of Dahiba. That is a border town which the rebels have been using as a kind of staging area, if you will.

Last week, they actually made an incursion into the city - that's Gadhafi forces. There's fighting over that town because it's a key supply route for the rebels in the mountains near the border. Ethnic Berbers are fighting Gadhafi's forces there, and they have been using Tahiba(ph) and Tunisia. Towns like Zintan and Yafran are under repeated bombardment - we're hearing from rebel sources - from Gadhafi's forces. They're running short of food, water and medicine. And so this border area is very contested and very key - not only, again, to get supplies into the rebels, but also because so many Libyans are fleeing the fighting. And that is one of the border crossings that they use.

SIMON: You were down at the battle lines this week, Lourdes. Is this like trench warfare, going back and forth? Is it a stalemate? Does there seem to be clear movement?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here in the east, if you'll remember, this was one of the hottest war zones. I mean, this is where they were fighting over towns like Ajdabiya, Brega, Ras Lanouf, for weeks and weeks and weeks. And they were trading these towns back and forth.

And now what seems to have developed - after NATO mistakenly bombed rebel forces - is that there's a kind of buffer zone that's been created. And the front line is pretty static right now. The rebels were told by NATO - they are in coordination with NATO at the moment - not to advance, that they need to hold back so that they won't be mistakenly hit by these airstrikes.

And so it's a pretty static front line at the moment - at least, where I was. And that's what the rebels are telling me. But they are gearing up, they say, for another offensive. They are going to try and push forward again. But for the moment, certainly, they are firing at each other rockets and mortars, but they're not confronting each other over territory as such.

SIMON: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi, Libya. Thanks so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.