Has Gaddafi unleashed a mercenary force on Libya?
David Smith in Johannesburg
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 February 2011 18.28 GMT
Reports describe black, French-speaking troops but observers warn they could just be sub-Saharan immigrants in the army
Protesters chant anti-government slogans in Tobruk, Libya. Photograph: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
There are widespread reports that Muammar Gaddafi has unleashed numerous foreign mercenaries on his people, in a desperate gamble to crush dissent and quell the current uprising. Their origins vary according to speculation: Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Mali, Sudan and possibly even Asia and eastern Europe.
The claims are hard to pin down but persistent. Ali al-Essawi, the Libyan ambassador to India, who resigned in the wake of the crackdown, told Reuters on Tuesday: “They are from Africa, and speak French and other languages.” He said their presence had prompted some army troops to switch sides to the opposition. “They are Libyans and they cannot see foreigners killing Libyans so they moved beside the people.”
In a separate interview, Essawi told al-Jazeera: “People say they are black Africans and they don’t speak Arabic. They are doing terrible things, going to houses and killing women and children.” Witness accounts seem to bear out the claims. One resident of Tripoli was quoted by Reuters: “Gaddafi obviously does not have any limits. We knew he was crazy, but it’s still a terrible shock to see him turning mercenaries on his own people and just mowing down unarmed demonstrators.”
“The next day, we were shocked to see mercenaries from Chad, Tunisia, Morocco speaking French attacking us … We captured some of the mercenaries and they said they were given orders by Gaddafi to eliminate the protesters.”
Amid the chaos gripping Libya, the volume of foreign mercenaries and much else remains confused. Some believe they could be veterans of civil wars in the Sahel and west Africa. Ibrahim Jibreel, a Libyan political activist, told al-Jazeera that some had been in the country for months, based in training camps in the south, as if in anticipation of such an uprising. Others had been flown in at short notice, he said.
Mercenaries remain a potent weapon against civilian populations, despite the African Union’s 1977 Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa. Liberian civil war veterans have been hired by Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo to terrorise protesters following his widely acknowledged election defeat.
Roberts added: “Gaddafi and other dictators tend to surround themselves with fighters who will be loyal to them rather than to a local faction. Foreign mercenaries are likely to be less squeamish about shooting at local people.
“They are likely to better trained – a small unit that can be relied upon. They might also have experience of fighting battles and therefore be more capable if push comes to shove.”
There is a constant supply of willing recruits, he added. “In Africa the process of demobilizing rebels is poor. The only thing they know is how to fight. If someone can turn the barrel of a gun into profit, they jump at it. They have few other employment opportunities.”
But some analysts urged against jumping to conclusions in Libya, noting that the country has a significant black population who may simply be serving in the regular army and could be mistaken for mercenaries. These include Chadians who sided with Gaddafi in his past conflicts with Chad and were rewarded with houses, jobs and Libyan citizenship.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said yesterday it had received “alarming reports” that Libyans were turning on African refugees whom they accused of being mercenaries.