It has been widely reported that Moammar Gadhafi is using foreign mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. Now many from that region living in Libya are fleeing for their lives, suspected of having fought for Gadhafi.
Sub-saharan Africans in Libya have been theatened and worse
Early reports on the conflict in Libya described an army of foreign mercenaries hired by Moammar Gadhafi in a desperate attempt to quell the growing unrest in the country. Now reports are emerging that people from sub-Saharan Africa in Libya have been attacked, or even lynched, by rebels because they are suspected of working for the Libyan leader.
But human rights groups and observers say many of the people who are being threatened or even killed are simply foreign workers who had come to work in the oil-rich country or were on their way to Europe and got caught up in the violence.
While it is certain that Gadhafi has hired foreign fighters from other countries to prop up his regime, the heightened emotions and ongoing violence have led rebel groups to round up large groups of men of immigrants with darker skin and treat them as if they were on Gadhafi's payroll.
Gadhafi has used mercenaries for many years
Last weekend, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert described on that organization's website how he and colleagues had been to the main courthouse in the city of Benghazi and found 51 people in detention, all from sub-Saharan Africa and accused of being mercenaries.
But when he and his group spoke to the detainees, they found little evidence that the men were working for Gadhafi. Most had credible accounts of having lived in Libya for years.
"We were disappointed to see so many apparently innocent people in detention under crowded conditions, and urged the authorities to immediately release those against whom no credible evidence exists," he wrote.
Outside the Benghazi courthouse, three effigies were hanging from lampposts and flagpoles, all in the form of mercenaries. A spokesman for the committee that had taken control of the area after Libyan security forces were ousted said if people knew the men were being held here, they would tear down the door.
"That is very sad, there are a lot of innocent sub-Saharans who are caught up in this because of the color of their skin or their accent or that they speak French," Paul Sullivan, an expert on North Africa at the National Defense University and Georgetown University, told Deutsche Welle.
"They are caught in a devastating situation," he added.
Long and dark history
Gadhafi has preferred to keep the military weak and divided
But the fear and hatred of mercenaries in Libya is strong and reports of atrocities carried out by them recently have come from high-ranking sources.
In February, Libya's ambassador to India, Ali al-Essawi, who resigned in the wake of the crackdown, told broadcaster 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."
Numerous witness reports from the ground appeared to bear out that claim.
Gadhafi has long used foreign mercenaries to prop up his regime or accomplish his goals in other countries. It is suspected that he has not only used them for his own security forces, but engaged them for places as far away as Northern Ireland and the Philippines, according to Sullivan.
The Libyan leader has set up special units entirely composed of foreign fighters from Chad, Mali, Niger and elsewhere. Gadhafi, who himself came to power in a military coup, does not trust a strong military. He has preferred to buy loyalty with his oil revenues, and Africa's large-scale poverty has given him a large pool to draw upon.
"Gadhafi's system of divide and rule and causing trouble has always been to have militias and people like that in his back pocket," Jon Marks, an associate fellow at Chatham House and the chairman of Cross Border Information, told Deutsche Welle.
Experts do not know how many mercenaries may be involved in the current conflict Some eyewitnesses in Benghazi estimated the number fighting there in the early days numbered 3,000 to 4,000.
Many poorer Libyans are resentful toward sub-Saharan Africans
The BBC reported last week that up to 300 men had left Mali to fight for Gadhafi over the previous seven days, having been paid about $10,000 (7,200 euros) to sign up and $1,000 a day to fight. Others say the total number of mercenaries could be much lower.
"It's important to clarify that clarity is not here," said Sullivan. "It's not like there's a roll call every morning."
While much of the backlash against sub-Saharan Africans in Libya is related to suspicions of their being guns for hire, some has to do with a deep-seated resentment among parts of the Libyan population toward dark-skinned Africans.
When Gadhafi was spurned by the Arab world, he turned his attentions to Africa, opening the borders to his neighbors to the south. That led to an influx of foreigners who worked as laborers in the oil fields, as street sweepers, servants and drivers. Many were trying to save enough to eventually make the passage to Europe.
Of Libya's 6.5 million people, one million are foreign nationals, many of them sub-Saharan Africans.
A wide net of suspicion has been cast over those with dark skin
But many poorer Libyans were angry about the development, feeling that the sub-Saharan Africans were taking their jobs. Many Libyans may now be unleashing that resentment.
"Now old scores are being settled," Marks said. "These people who are extremely vulnerable are under enormous pressure."
While Libyans in parts of the country have thrown off the long and punishing rule of Gadhafi, they are faced with the question of what to do with mercenaries who have become particularly hated and feared figures during the revolt, but also to find a way to determine who actually was a gun for hire and who was simply a foreigner caught up in the crossfire.
Author: Kyle James
Editor: Rob Mudge