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Human Rights Watch to Gaddafi Regime: End Indiscriminate Attacks in Western Mountain Towns

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Dr. Derza Moncef, director for emergency services at Tataouine Hospital in Tunisia, about 100 kilometers from Dehiba, said the hospital had treated at least five Libyan refugees every day since April 7, including for burns, shrapnel wounds, and broken bones. The hospital had seen Libyan children and some elderly who were malnourished and dehydrated, he said.

Under international humanitarian law applicable in Libya, all sides to the conflict are prohibited from targeting civilians and civilian objects or conducting attacks that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants, Human Rights Watch said. Forces must take all feasible precautions to minimize the harm to the civilian population, including avoiding deploying in populated areas and ensuring all targets are military objectives.

Armed opposition forces in Libya are also obliged to respect the laws of war, including by avoiding to the extent feasible locating military objectives in densely populated areas and endeavoring to remove civilians from the vicinity of military objectives, Human Rights Watch said.

As in other conflicts, Human Rights Watch monitors compliance with the laws of war by all parties to the conflict - here the Libyan government, armed opposition groups, and international military forces.

"All persons responsible for attacks that amount to war crimes, including those who give the orders, are subject to prosecution," Khalife said. "And soldiers should refuse to follow unlawful orders."

Tensions in the Nafusa Mountains, inhabited by Arabs and ethnic Amazigh (or Berber), began on February 18, 2011, when residents of some towns staged peaceful protests against the Gaddafi government. The government responded by deploying security forces to reassert control, which provoked more protests and unrest, the refugees said. Pro-Gaddafi forces surrounded towns such as Zintan, Nalut, Takut, and Ruways al Hawamid, and blocked residents' access to their farms and olive groves outside the towns, bringing most work and commerce to a halt. Some farmers who made it to Tunisia said that government forces killed or ate their livestock, or that the animals died from lack of water because farmers were unable to reach them. By late March rebel forces had control of at least these four towns and the government was shelling Zintan from its outskirts.

By April 7, the first refugees made it into Tunisia across the Dehiba crossing, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Over the next two weeks, 18,853 refugees crossed into Dehiba. On April 21, rebel forces seized control of the town of Wazin, about four kilometers from Tunisia, and the Libyan territory leading to the Dehiba border crossing, opening a supply route into the mountains. Since then, control of this border area has changed hands between Libyan government forces and rebels, with frequent armed clashes, sometimes spilling into Tunisia. Starting on April 29, the Tunisian army also has clashed with Libyan government forces as they pursued rebels into Dehiba, sometimes forcing the border crossing to close.

According to the UNHCR, another 24,016 refugees from Libya officially entered Tunisia through the Dehiba crossing between April 22 and May 4. On April 30 alone 4,568 refugees fled to Tunisia through the Dehiba crossing, followed by another 3,500 on May 1. On average 2,500 refugees from Libya are also crossing into Tunisia every day using informal routes, UNHCR said.

Indiscriminate Attacks
Refugees interviewed in Tunisia said that government forces started attacking rebel-held towns in the Nafusa Mountains in late March. Almost all of the refugees said that government forces had fired "Grads," possibly meant as a generic term for mortar and artillery fire, as none claimed to have weapons expertise. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm the type of munitions fired by government forces into civilian areas because such confirmation requires access to and inspection of the impact sites.

Government forces might have fired Grad rockets, Human Rights Watch said, as they have repeatedly fired these rockets into civilian areas in Misrata, a coastal city in western Libya, over the past month. In addition, photos taken of weapon remains by a foreign photographer in Nalut on April 26, which rebels claim were fired by government forces, show the signature twisted metal of a fired Grad rocket, as well as intact Grad rockets that rebels in Nalut claim to have captured after a clash with government forces.

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The Soviet-designed Grad rocket, with a range of four to 40 kilometers, is inherently indiscriminate when fired in civilian areas because it lacks a guidance system. But firing artillery shells and mortar rounds into civilian areas can also be indiscriminate, and therefore unlawful, when used in a manner that does not distinguish between military targets and civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Most of the refugees interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Tunisia asked not to publish their names due to fear of harassment and potential reprisal by the Libyan government.

According to more than a dozen witnesses, rebel forces took control of the predominantly-Arab inhabited town of Zintan (population approximately 40,000) in mid-March after a few days of fighting with government forces. Zintan then came under heavy assault by government forces starting on about April 25, including attacks in densely populated neighbourhoods.

Hassan F. (not his real name), a 55-year-old retired teacher from the Belhita neighborhood of Zintan, said he also fled Libya on April 27 after extensive attacks in residential areas, including at least three attacks that hit at our near the town's hospital. He said:

The bombing forced us to leave. It started the day before yesterday [April 26]. My children were asleep and woke up and heard it.... Some houses were destroyed, some mosques, even the Zintan hospital grounds were hit by three or four rockets. They hit some schools, but they were mostly focusing on the houses.... The mosque, school, and hospital were all in the center [of town].

Toward the beginning of the attack on Zintan on April 25, Hassan learned that a government-fired munition had struck the compound of a family with the last name of Knifou on the edge of town. He went to the compound, he said, and saw seven people killed and ten injured, one of them his uncle, whose name Hassan did not want to give out of concern for his security. Hassan told Human Rights Watch:

There was a house and, in front of it, a tent. In the tent there were two little girls, four boys in their 20s, and an old woman of almost 80. The house was in a mountain area. A Grad hit the tent, or maybe it was another kind of rocket.... The shrapnel killed the family [in the tent].... We saw the crater from where the rocket hit the ground. It made a crater smaller than this tent [in the refugee camp].... Of the injured people, one got his leg cut off.... I left him in Zintan, but there was no equipment in the hospital.

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Hassan said that to his knowledge, and based on what he had seen when moving through Zintan for his daily business throughout April, rebels had not used any of the buildings attacked by government forces. Nor to his knowledge were there any other military targets in the vicinity. He and other refuges from Zintan said the rebels were operating on the outskirts of town, defending against a potential incursion by government or loyalist forces. "The rebels were not using the mosque, school, or hospital; just normal people were using them," he said.

Amr F. (not his real name), also from Zintan, showed Human Rights Watch a cell phone-video that he said he took of the Al Khalil school in the town. The video showed the pockmarked walls of the school, which Amr said resulted from a government attack in the morning hours of April 27. Amr and his family said that to their knowledge, and based on their observation of the school building as they moved about town, rebels had not used the school.

Hussein G. (not his real name), a 61-year-old volunteer nurse from Zintan, said he also witnessed destruction from attacks in civilian areas, including an ambulance that was damaged outside the Zintan hospital by a government-fired munition between 7 and 8 a.m. on April 27. "We heard the blast," he said. "I came to the hospital to see if anyone needed help. It was an empty ambulance that was destroyed. It was in front of the hospital." Hussein was regularly at the hospital to serve as a volunteer until he fled from Zintan, and he said he never observed a rebel presence at the hospital.

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