Up to 30,000 killed, say Libyans

TRIPOLI, Libya, Sept 8, (Agencies): At least 30,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded in Libya’s six-month civil war, the interim health minister said, offering a first detailed estimate of the high cost in lives of bringing down Muammar Gaddafi.
There have been rough estimates in the past, but Naji Barakat, the health minister in the new Libyan leadership, said his figures are based, in part, on reporting from hospitals, local officials and former rebel commanders.
Barakat said he’ll only have a complete count in several weeks, but that he expects the final figure for dead and wounded to be higher than his current estimates. Libya has a population of just over 6 million.
At least 4,000 people are still missing, either presumed dead or held prisoner in remaining Gaddafi strongholds, including his hometown of Sirte, Barakat told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Others killed in fighting were hastily buried, and are now being exhumed for identification.
Search teams also continue to find secret graves of detainees killed by retreating Gaddafi forces.
Just this week, they dug up more bodies in one area of the Libyan capital Tripoli and two other towns.
Next week, worshippers will be asked to report the dead and missing in their families to the local mosques, said Barakat, in an attempt to get a more detailed figure.
Of the estimated 30,000 dead, about half are believed to have been Gaddafi’s fighters, Barakat said.
He said he was told by Libya’s new military officials that the Khamis Brigade, commanded by Gaddafi’s son Khamis and a core force in Gaddafi’s army, lost about 9,000 troops.
One of the hardest hit areas was the port city of Misrata, Libya’s third largest, where former rebels and Gaddafi regime forces fought for two months, ending with the retreat of badly battered Gaddafi troops.
At least 2,000 former rebel fighters and civilians were killed in Misrata and thousands more were wounded, including 900 who lost limbs, Barakat said, citing new figures from the Misrata local council.
Reporting is incomplete for the western areas of the country that remained under Gaddafi’s control until close to the end of the fighting, including the capital of Tripoli, Barakat said.
For example, little is known about the number of people killed during a brutal crackdown on mass opposition protests in the spring in those areas, he said.
The former rebels entered Tripoli on Aug 21, but only took control after a week of fierce street battles.
Barakat said that at least 1,700 former rebel fighters died in the battle for Tripoli, along with about 100 civilians.
The number of war wounded is currently estimated to be at least 50,000, including some 20,000 with serious injuries, but is expected to rise, Barakat said.
NTC fighters meanwhile  claimed to have captured a key objective Thursday in their drive on Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi, as the ex-Libyan leader dismissed as lies reports he had fled to Niger.
At the same time, talks on a peaceful surrender of the town of Bani Walid, held by Gaddafi loyalists, have ended without success, a National Transitional Council military chief said, raising the prospects of an assault on it.
The NTC has fixed a Saturday deadline for Bani Walid and other towns loyal to Gaddafi, including Sirte and the southern desert oasis of Sabha, to surrender.
“Our men took control of the Red Valley” at 2:45 pm (1245 GMT), Mustafa Bendaraf, an NTC commander on the front line, said of the region 60 kms (40 miles) east of Sirte.
The area was one of the main lines of defence of pro-Gaddafi troops.
An AFP correspondent in Umm Khunfis, some 30 kms away, reported hearing artillery fire in the distance.
On Wednesday, NTC forces captured the hamlet of Bou Saada, between Umm Khunfis and Sirte, and are massing in the area by the thousands as they ready for a possible assault.
An NTC commander at Rafa al-Jeibi, 150 kms northwest of Sirte, said: “We are awaiting the end of negotiations on Saturday. Until then, we won’t move. We will defend ourselves if attacked, but that is all.”
As for the talks on Bani Walid, which went on for several days, they “have stopped because there has been no result,” Abdullah Abu Ussara told AFP.
“We are now waiting for instructions on our next move.”
Former regime officials close to Gaddafi, including spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, are suspected of being holed up in Bani Walid, some 170 kms (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli.
It was hoped talks would lead to the surrender of the town, where the NTC fears civilians might be used as human shields by die-hard Gaddafi loyalists.
With remnants of Gaddafi’s battered forces pinned down, Libya’s new leadership and the United States urged neighbouring countries to close their borders to Gaddafi stalwarts.
The former leader, whose whereabouts are unknown, remained defiant in his first address for several days, telling his countrymen: “They have nothing else to resort to apart from psychological warfare and lies.”
Speaking by telephone to Damascus-based Arrai Oruba television, he added: “They last said Gaddafi had been seen in a convoy heading towards Niger.
“They want to weaken our morale. Do not waste time on this weak and ignoble enemy.”
Gaddafi also said NATO, which has carried out daily air raids against his forces under a UN mandate since March 31, “will be defeated” as its “logistical capacities will not allow it” to continue.
“We are ready in Tripoli and everywhere to intensify attacks against the rats, the mercenaries, who are a pack of dogs,” he said.
Since his Tripoli headquarters was overrun on August 23, Gaddafi has made several appeals for resistance in tapes aired by Arrai, which is run by former Iraqi Sunni MP Mishan al-Juburi.
Juburi, the only media personality able to contact Gaddafi after Tripoli fell, said the ex-leader and his son Seif al-Islam were still in Libya.
“He is in Libya, in very good spirits, feels strong, is not afraid, and would be happy to die fighting against the occupiers,” Juburi told AFP by phone.
The NTC fears Gaddafi will try to slip over one of Libya’s porous borders, and Niger strongly denied he was in the country after a convoy carrying other senior ousted regime officials fled there on Monday.
The United States said Gaddafi was not believed to be among them.
In a bid to cut off Gaddafi’s potential escape routes, the NTC said it had dispatched a team to the Niger capital Niamey, and Washington said Gaddafi aides who entered Niger were being detained.
None of those entering Niger earlier this week appeared to be on a list of persons subject to UN sanctions, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“Our understanding is that the convoy included some military and senior officials under Gaddafi’s former regime,” she said. “They are now being held in the capital... and they are being monitored closely by Nigerien officials.”
Also, Washington “is in contact with Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso to emphasise the importance of respecting the UN Security Council resolutions and of securing their borders,” Nuland said.
Niger on Thursday did not rule out welcoming Libya’s deposed leader Moamer Gaddafi.
Following a meeting in Ouagadougou with Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore, Nigerien Prime Minister Brigi Rafini also denied persistent rumours that the ousted Libyan leader was already in Niger.
“We hear all kinds of rumours everywhere... Some say that he is in Burkina and others that he’s in Niger but that is not the case as of now,” he said.
“At least for now, we have not given him shelter,” Rafini said.
When asked whether Niger would agree to host the fugitive Gaddafi, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague and by Libya’s new rulers, Rafini said: “When the case arises, we’ll make a decision.”
Rights group Amnesty International said Libya’s neighbours must arrest Gaddafi and others wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) if they cross the borders.
“If they are found outside Libya, national authorities in that country must immediately arrest them and hand them over to the ICC to face trial for these crimes,” said senior Amnesty director Claudio Cordone.
In that vein, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has asked Interpol to help, his office said, by issuing a “red notice to arrest Muammar Gaddafi for the alleged crimes against humanity of murder and persecution.”
As the fledgling interim government struggles to get Libya back on its feet, the central bank governor said a sanctions-hit Gaddafi had sold 20 percent of the country’s gold reserves, beginning in April.
Qassem Azzoz said Gaddafi had sold 29 tonnes of gold, worth more than $1 billion, to local merchants.
He also told a Tripoli news conference the bank’s total assets stand at $115 billion, $90 billion of it abroad.
In other developments, the United States and the international community believe Libya’s new rulers are responsible for preventing weapons proliferation in a region battling terrorism, said the top US general in Africa, Carter Ham.
Forces loyal to Gaddafi may fight on even if the deposed Libyan leader is captured, and NATO will maintain air strikes against them as long as they threaten civilians, the US ambassador to NATO said.
NATO officials say they have no information as to Gaddafi’s whereabouts and that the alliance has not been tracking his movements, given that its UN mandate is limited to the protection of civilians, rather than targeting individuals.
US Ambassador Ivo Daalder told a news briefing on Thursday that Gaddafi’s capture might not signal the end of the campaign of air strikes NATO took over on March 31.
“We will maintain the operation as long as the regime or its elements continue to pose a threat to civilians,” he said.
“It isn’t clear that if he (Gaddafi) were to be taken out that the whole thing would necessarily collapse; we just don’t know that. We do know that if he doesn’t have the capability to pose a threat to civilians, then it doesn’t really matter.”
Speaking in Lisbon, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said that NATO would continue its mission as long as civilians were threatened by Gaddafi’s forces.
A senior NATO diplomat said NATO’s operational mandate, which expires this month, would be extended as necessary.
“We have a mandate to protect civilians and we will continue to do so. If that is achieved before Sept. 26, great, if it requires extension of the mandate beyond Sept. 26, we will have an extension of the mandate,” he said.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, repeated alliance statements that NATO was not searching for Gaddafi and suggested its ground surveillance did not cover the south of Libya, bordering countries to which Gaddafi might try to flee.
“The operations plan that we adopted limited the area of operations to the coastal area,” he said.
“It is very expensive and difficult to monitor the entire country, which is mostly desert and very big,” he said. “Since this was fundamentally about protecting people, rather than watching sands, this was where the resources were located.”
Two enraged young Libyans barged into their embassy in the Philippine capital Thursday to try to evict diplomats they suspect remain loyal to Gaddafi.
Associated Press journalists saw the men scale the embassy’s steel gate and scuffle with guards. They broke open a wooden door and while yelling at the top of their voice, tried to look for two of four Libyan diplomats inside they accused of remaining loyal to Gaddafi.
“We are Libyans, this is our embassy,” Elyosa Fathi Elgardag, a former student in the Philippines, said before storming the compound in front of several Filipino guards.
Several of his Libyan companions were barred from entering the upscale village, Elgardag said. A crowd-control team stood by in case Libyan protesters manage to get near the embassy.
Last month, Libyan diplomats in Manila raised the flag of the interim rebel government, the National Transitional Council, as Tripoli’s diplomatic missions across the world defected from Gaddafi, underscoring his rapid fall after nearly 42 years in power.
The ecstatic, young Libyans rampaged through the embassy compound in August, smashing Gaddafi’s glass-covered portraits, shouting “Die Gaddafi, die!” and ripping his “Green Book,” which contains his ruling philosophy.
But Elgardag said the Libyan diplomats in Manila were under pressure to switch sides after he and other Libyans based in the Philippines forced them to defect.
Syria, accused by France of “crimes against humanity,” on Thursday sent its security forces storming into a northwestern village where they killed three military defectors, rights activists said.
Pro-democracy activists, meanwhile, called for the United Nations to send international observers to Syria.
“The Syrian people calls on the United Nations to adopt a resolution to set up a permanent observer mission in Syria,” activists said on their Facebook page, “Syrian Revolution.”
“We demand access to the international media, we demand the protection of civilians,” they said, calling for fresh demonstrations on Friday, the Muslim day of rest and prayers.
In the latest military operation, “a force comprising seven armoured vehicles and 10 jeeps stormed the village of Ibleen in Jabal Al-Zawiyah (region) in search of people wanted by the security services,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Heavy gunfire was heard as the forces stormed the village,” the Observatory said in a statement received by AFP in Cyprus.
The head of the Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, later told AFP the three killings occurred during a raid on the house in Ibleen of a brother of one of the defectors, Hussein Harmouche.
Two other deserters were arrested, Abdel Rahman said, reached by telephone from Nicosia.
Harmouche, an officer, announced his defection in a June video widely distributed on the Internet and broadcast on Arab satellite channels, giving as the reason his refusal “to fire on unarmed civilians.”
The United Nations says 2,200 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since democracy protests flared in Syria in mid-March.
The assault on Ibleen comes a day after regime forces, according to an updated toll by rights activists, killed another 31 people, 29 of them in a tank-backed raid on the flashpoint central city of Homs.
The brutal crackdown on protesters has been widely condemned by world powers, some of which have slapped sanctions on the Damascus regime.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe pulled no punches during talks on Wednesday in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
“The Syrian regime has committed crimes against humanity,” Juppe said.
“The way it (the Syrian regime) suppressed the popular protests is unacceptable,” he said, expressing hope that Russia would change its stance and back UN condemnation of the crackdown.
But Lavrov gave no signs of being ready to ease a Russian position that last week saw Moscow lash the European Union for imposing a crippling oil embargo on Syria.
“We are convinced that the essential thing is to start dialogue at the talks table,” Lavrov said.
“We consider that inciting certain forces within the opposition to boycott the invitation to dialogue is a dangerous path and risks a repetition of the Libyan scenario, which neither Russia nor France wants.”
Russia has staunchly opposed attempts by Western governments to push through a UN Security Council resolution targeting President Bashar al-Assad and has circulated an alternative draft calling for him to implement reforms.
The head of the Arab League, Nabil al-Arabi, is due in Damascus on Saturday after a planned visit on Wednesday was postponed.
Damascus had postponed the trip at the 11th hour “due to circumstances beyond our control.”
Arabi has been commissioned by the 22-member Cairo-based pan-Arab organisation to travel to Damascus with a 13-point document outlining proposals to end the bloody crackdown on dissent and push Syria to launch reforms.
According to a copy of the document seen by AFP, Arabi is to propose that Assad hold elections in three years, move towards a pluralistic government and immediately halt the crackdown.
The initiative, agreed by Arab foreign ministers last month, angered Syria which said it contained “unacceptable and biased language.”
Syria’s regime, which has promised to launch a wide range of reforms to appease protesters, blames the unrest on foreign-backed “armed terrorist gangs.”
Russia believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could hold on to power despite a popular revolt and Moscow hopes to build bridges between the government and opposition, the Kremlin’s envoy to the region said on Thursday.
Mikhail Margelov also said Moscow was holding out against a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria over its crackdown on protesters in the hope that it would win support for its own draft, described by some diplomats as toothless.
Margelov meets Syrian opposition figures in Moscow on Friday and has talks with Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Assad, on Monday before starting a tour of the Middle East and North Africa next week that will include discussions on Syria.
“The chances for a political settlement are still open,” he told reporters at a conference in the Russian city of Yaroslavl.
“We are trying to bring them closer together, the opposition and the government. We still hope that it’s possible to establish a kind of docking mechanism between them.”
Russia, which has a naval maintenance facility in Syria and arms contracts with Damascus, has condemned the use of force against protesters in Syria and regretted the loss of life but has blamed opponents of Assad for some of the violence and stopped short of backing Western calls for him to quit.
Russia says Assad has much to offer if he is given time to reform and, warning against the danger of militant Islamists coming to power in the region, has cautioned that his replacement could be even less palatable to the West.
“Bashar al-Assad is a secular leader, he is young, he is well educated and he is broad-minded,” said Margelov, who heads the upper house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
“We think he has a chance for modernisation in his country if the ruling class in Syria becomes more open-minded, more receptive to new ideas, more interactive in dealing with other segments of Syrians.”
Syrian security forces kept up a deadly crackdown on dissent Thursday as the embattled regime faced surprising calls to end the violence from its closest ally, Iran, in a sign of growing alarm over the 6-month-old uprising.
In a live interview in Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Syrian President Bashar Assad should back away from his violent crackdown and talk to the opposition.
“There should be talks” between the Syrian government and its opponents, Ahmadinejad told Portuguese broadcaster Radiotelevisao Portuguesa late Wednesday, according to a simultaneous Portuguese translation of his comments.
“A military solution is never the right solution,” Ahmadinejad said.
The comments came the same day that Syrian security forces unleashed one of the deadliest military assaults on the rebellious city of Homs, killing at least 20 people, activists said.
Ahmadinejad’s comments are a clear departure from that line and appear to reflect growing impatience with Assad in Iran.
Late last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi urged Assad to listen to some of his people’s “legitimate demands.”
The relationship with Iran is key to Assad’s regime, which is facing the most severe international isolation in more than 40 years of rule by the Assad family.
Hosni Mubarak was back in court on Thursday over the killing of protesters, a day after the presiding judge summoned Egypt’s military ruler and other top officials to testify next week in the trial of the toppled ex-president.
The testimonies of such high-ranking officials could prove decisive in the case, although Judge Ahmed Refaat said when he announced the decision on Wednesday that the witnesses would be heard behind closed doors for reasons of national security.
The court heard more witnesses on Thursday. One of them, a police officer, told the court that police were armed in central Cairo and suggested the weapons were used against protesters. Defence lawyers said he was in no position to know.
The judge surprised the court on Wednesday by saying Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the military council now ruling Egypt and served as Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades, would appear in the witness box on Sunday.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Enan and Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former intelligence chief and briefly his vice-president, will also testify next week, alongside Interior Minister Essam el-Essawy and his predecessor Mahmoud Wagdy.
“The decision to summon Field Marshal Tantawi and the others is certainly a good thing, but the session has to be public in order to be fair,” said Mohamed Adel, an activist with the April 6 movement which helped force out autocrat Mubarak in February.
“We have to see it, and the concept of a publishing ban and secrecy is totally rejected by us,” he added.
State television said the prosecutor sent Tantawi and others official notices to attend the court.
Earlier this week, police witnesses suggested that neither Mubarak nor his former interior minister, Habib al-Adli, who is also in the dock, had ordered police to shoot. Two witnesses said they were told to exercise “self-restraint”.
Lawyers for some of the 850 people killed in the revolt that ousted Mubarak on Feb. 11 have been irked by police statements, saying officers changed their accounts when they were in court.
The judge dismissed a prosecution bid to raise a case against one witness for alleged false testimony.
As in the four previous sessions since the trial started on Aug. 3, Mubarak was flown to the court by helicopter and wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher. The 83-year-old has been hospitalised since April when he was first questioned.
Mubarak is charged with conspiring to kill protesters and “inciting” some police officers to use live ammunition, as well as with corruption. He has denied all charges.
A deputy interior minister, Hassan Abdel Hamid Farag, told the court on Thursday he attended a meeting with the former interior minister and other police officers standing trial.
“The decision of the meeting was to prevent the protesters from entering Tahrir even if by use of force,” he said. But he he added the former interior minister said at the meeting police should use tear gas or water not shotguns.
A defence lawyer asked if the meeting took a decision to allow the use of firearms, he said: “It did not happen.”
Officer Essam Hosni told the court a security plan was in place early in the uprising that erupted on Jan. 25 to prevent protesters reaching Tahrir Square. He said police were armed with guns in central Cairo and elsewhere.
“The amount of arms available in central Cairo and in front of all the police stations and jails confirms that deaths and injuries were a result of the use of these weapons,” he said.
Defence lawyers suggested he was not in a position to make his statements and was drawing conclusions. “The witness is basing his testimony on matters he heard,” one said.
When asked by the judge, the former interior minister said: “All that the witness has said contradicts the truth.”
Mubarak had no comment when asked by the judge.
The former president is standing trial with Adli, six police officers and his two sons, Gamal, who was once seen as being groomed for top office, and Alaa, a businessman.
A special Bahraini court has released on bail Shiite medics being tried for their role in a month-long pro-democracy protest, the Information Affairs Authority said Thursday.
The national safety court, set up under a three-month quasi-emergency law declared by King Hamad ahead of the mid-March crackdown on the protest led by the Shiite majority, said the verdict will be issued on September 29, IAA said.
It said seven doctors and three ambulance drivers were released, and that all doctors and medical staff are now out on bail “pending announcement of verdicts.”
Some of the released medics had led a hunger strike for more than a week, according to the opposition.
The Bahrain Commission of Inquiry — an independent panel of foreign experts set up by King Hamad to investigate the crackdown — said more than 100 detainees had gone on hunger strike, 17 of whom were hospitalised after their health deteriorated.
Bahraini authorities have charged 24 doctors and 23 nurses — including several women — from Manama’s central Salmaniya hospital of incitement to overthrow the regime, during the protests in the Gulf kingdom that is ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty.
In addition, they were accused of “incitement to hatred of a regime, incitement to hatred of a segment of society, dissemination of false news and malicious rumours that could harm public interest and participation in unauthorised rallies and meetings.”
The total number of medics being tried is not clear, but BNA state news agency said that 20 doctors and medics were in court Wednesday.
They were all rounded up in the wake of the heavy-handed security clampdown which forcefully drove protesters out of Manama’s central Pearl Square that became the focal point of anti-regime protests for a month, before being razed.
Many claim to have been tortured in custody.
The national safety court is a mixed military and civilian panel. But King Hamad last month promised that all Bahrainis in trials related to protests will see their verdicts issued by a civil court.
Authorities said in May that 405 detainees had been referred to courts, while 312 were released.
A delegation from Yemen’s ruling party headed Thursday to Riyadh to seek permission from convalescing President Ali Abdullah Saleh for his deputy to negotiate a power-transfer plan with the opposition, a party official said.
“The delegation is heading to Riyadh to meet the president and ask him to authorise his deputy to start the dialogue” with the opposition, which is demanding Saleh’s ouster, the official told AFP requesting anonymity.
The decision was taken during a meeting of the politburo of the General People’s Congress on Wednesday, which discussed a plan proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council aiming to end months of anti-regime protests through easing Saleh out of office before his term ends in 2013.
“It has been agreed that Saleh would issue a decree vesting his deputy with constitutional powers to hold talks with the parties that have signed the Gulf initiative and agree on a timetable and mechanism to implement it,” GPC’s Assistant Secretary General Sultan Barakani told AFP earlier.
He said that the implementation of the plan proposed by the GCC “would lead to holding early presidential elections that would guarantee a peaceful and democratic transition of power.”
The plan drawn up by the six Gulf states in coordination with the European Union and the United States called for the immediate formation of a government of national unity with Saleh stepping down a month later in return for a promise of immunity, but the president has repeatedly refused to sign it.
The ruling party mulled over the past two days a roadmap drawn by UN envoy Jamal Benomar to implement the Gulf initiative with some amendments to its timetable.
Opposition sources said that the UN plan called for the formal transfer of power to Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi by Saleh, who has been in Saudi Arabia since early June being treated for blast wounds sustained in a bomb attack on his palace.
The UN plans also calls for the immediate launch of negotiations on the formation of a government of national reconciliation, which would rule the country for an interim period of three or six months during which preparations would be made for a presidential election.
The interim government would also oversee the reorganisation of the armed forces, which have split over the past nine months with some key units defecting to the protest movement.
Ruling party sources said that Saleh had raised “objections to certain clauses” of the UN plan.

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