The New York Times reports on Libyan “rebels'” looting and destroying of a town they captured

Posted on 11 July 2011

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The village of Qawalish sits on the rolling high ground of the mountains of western Libya, a small collection of houses, shops and a mosque astride a single two-lane asphalt road. By the time the fighters opposed to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had chased away pro-Qaddafi forces last week, the battle for this tiny place, all but unknown by outsiders until that day, had provided several scenes that offered insights into how the rebel campaign is being conducted here.

Inside one of the ransacked shops, which also was intact when the rebels arrived.

Minutes after Qawalish fell last Wednesday, none of the village’s residents remained. They had bolted. There were signs, however, that until the rebels had arrived, at least some villagers had been present. The bazaar was still stocked with fresh vegetables, as if it had been working while the pro-Qaddafi forces held the town. The bakery had loaves of fresh bread. And little in the town appeared to have been disturbed as the town changed hands. Then the storm hit.

The next day the questions became more pressing. Houses that had not been burning the previous day were afire, and shops were being aggressively looted by armed men in rebel attire. Every few minutes, a truck would pass by on the road, headed back toward Zintan loaded with what seemed to be stolen goods. Animal feed appeared to be a favorite item to carry off. Several trucks an hour carried away bales of hay and sacks of grain. The rebels at the checkpoints at the town’s edge did nothing to stop any of this. The town, in short, was being looted by the rebels, and vandalized, and worse. The destruction was not total — five of the town’s scores of houses were on fire. But what would their owners think? And what kind of message was being sent to the people of this town?

One eerie aspect of life now in western Libya is the number of villages near the front where no civilians are present, even weeks after falling to rebel hands. This is not exactly a novel sight for a continuing, fluid war. …

Inside a burning home last Thursday, the day after Qawalish fell to the rebels. The home was not burning when the Qaddafi forces left.

As one house burned inside near the road and rebels openly stole from the town’s few stores, the question by late last week was whether what was happening was the opportunistic looting of an inexperienced quasi-military force, which was suffering the same shortages as everyone else, or something punitive and potentially much worse. Either behavior would be a crime under any notion of modern law, though the first might not set into motion long-term grievances while the second might be taken as an indicator that as this war smolders on, the possibility of unleashing bitterness between tribes and Qaddafi-era political factions grows each day.

By Sunday evening, the rebel license to loot had run almost its full course, and any such distinctions were fast slipping away. All of the shops in the town had been ransacked, several more homes were burned, and the town’s gas station, in fine condition when Qawalish fell, had been vandalized to the point of being dismantled. In building after building, furniture was flipped over, dishes and mirrors shattered, and everything torn apart. Except for a few rebels roaming the streets in cars and trucks, the town was deserted — a shattered, emptied ghost town decorated with broken glass.

What was obvious and beyond dispute by Sunday was only this: Whatever their motivation, the behavior of rebels in Qawalish, who have been supported by the NATO military campaign against Colonel Qaddafi, was at odds with the NATO mandate to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, and at odds with rebel pledges to free and protect the Libyan population.

(Emphasis added)

C.J. Chivers (10 July 2011). “Reporter’s Notebook: Reading the Rebels in Western Libya, Pt. I”. At War Blog (New York Times).

Image source.

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Posted in: All posts, Libya