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International prosecutor cites credible evidence of Libyan war crimes

There are "reasonable grounds" to charge Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's security forces with having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during a bloody, two-and-a-half- month long crackdown on Libyan protesters, according to the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The prosecutor, Argentine lawyer Luis Moreno-Ocampo, claimed in a report to the U.N. Security Council that his investigators have established preliminary but "credible" estimates that at least 500 to 700 civilians have been shot to death by government forces. He said he intends "in the next weeks" to submit his first application for arrest warrants against officials "most responsible for crimes against humanity" in Libya since Feb. 15, 2001. The abuses, he noted, are ongoing.

The prosecutor's office "will select for prosecution those who bear the highest responsibility, including those who ordered, incited, financed, or otherwise planned the commission of alleged crimes," the report states. The report also raises concerns that anti-government mobs or armed opposition forces may have engaged in "the unlawful arrest mistreatment and killings of sub-Saharan Africans perceived to be mercenaries. Reportedly angry mobs of protesters assaulted Sub-Saharan African in Benghazi and other cities and killed dozens of them."

The Security Council voted unanimously on Feb. 26 to authorize the international court to conduct an investigation into alleged excesses by Qaddafi's forces since Feb. 15, when they launched a brutal crackdown on Libyan demonstrators demanding democratic reforms. It is the second time since the court's inception that the 15-nation council has voted to trigger an ICC probe. In March, 2005, the council also backed an investigation into war crimes by the Sudanese government in Darfur. The court has since issued an arrest warrant against Sudan's leader, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for allegedly committing genocide.

Under the terms of the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC, Libya should be given the first chance to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the report states that government initiatives, including the establishment of a national commission by Qaddafi's son,  Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, to investigate reports of abuses, have been inadequate.

The report raises the prospect that Colonel Qaddafi and members of his family and inner circle may yet be charged committing war crimes. If so, it would be the second time the court has charged a sitting head of state with such crimes.

"The shooting at peaceful protestors was systematic, following the same modus operandi in multiple locations and executed through Security Forces," the report states. "The persecution appears to be also systematic and implemented in different cities. War crimes are apparently committed as a matter of policy."

The death toll has been hard to determine in Libya because of widely divergent estimates on both sides of the country's conflict. As of March 15, Qaddafi estimated that only 150 to 200 people had died during the conflict, half of them members of the government security forces. The Libyan Interim National Council claims that up to 10,000 have died, and that more than 50,000 have been injured, according to the report.

The prosecutor's report states that it has been difficult to determine the precise number of victims because bodies have been removed from the streets and doctors have been prohibited from documenting "the number of dead and injured in the hospitals after the violent clashes began."

The prosecutor said his investigation will begin with an examination of a brutal February clampdown in Benghazi, where civilian demonstrators protested the arrest of two locals, Fatih Terbil and Farag Sharany, who were demanding justice for victims of the governments' bloody 1996 massacre of inmates at the Abu Salim prison. 

"On 17 February, 2001, thousands of demonstrators congregated in the square around the high court of Benghazi, protesting such arrests and calling for political and economic freedom," according to the report. "Security forces entered the square and reportedly fired live ammunition into the crowd, killing numerous demonstrators. This was the beginning of a series of similar incidents in different cities across Libya which appears to demonstrate a consistent pattern of Security Forces firing live ammunition at civilians."

The prosecutor's report also cited allegations that government forces committed war crimes, including through the blocking of humanitarian supplies and through the use of "imprecise weaponry such as cluster munitions, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and other forms of heavy weaponry, in crowded urban areas."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

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