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Killings and rumors unsettle a Libyan city

The deaths of former government officials in Benghazi, the center of the Libyan resistance, appear to be rooted in vengeance and have raised the specter of a death squad.
Sa'ad al-Tobouli surveyed the damage to the home of his brother Youssef, a former internal security prison guard, after it was attacked last week in Benghazi, Libya.
Sa'ad al-Tobouli surveyed the damage to the home of his brother Youssef, a former internal security prison guard, after it was attacked last week in Benghazi, Libya. Nicole Tung for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Three weeks ago, a traveler spotted a man’s body in the farmland on this city’s outskirts, shot twice in the head with his hands and feet bound. He had disappeared earlier that day, after visiting a market.

Ten days later, near the same spot, a shepherd stumbled upon the body of a second man, killed with a single bullet to the forehead. Masked, armed men had taken him from his home the night before, without giving a reason, his wife said.

The dead men, Nasser al-Sirmany and Hussein Ghaith, had both worked as interrogators for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s internal security services, known for their brutality against domestic dissidents. The killings, still unsolved, appeared to be rooted in revenge, the families said, and have raised the specter of a death squad stalking former Qaddafi officials in Benghazi, the opposition stronghold.

The killings have unsettled an already paranoid city, where rebel authorities have spent weeks trying to round up people suspected of being Qaddafi loyalists — members of a fifth column who they say are trying to overthrow the rebels. If the violence continues, it will pose a stern challenge to a movement trying to present a vision of a new country committed to the rule of law, while potentially undermining hopes for a peaceful transition if Colonel Qaddafi surrenders power.

'The law is most important'
The rebels say their security forces are not responsible for the killings. Prosecutors here say they are investigating at least four attacks, including another murder in March, and they are exploring the possible involvement of Islamists who were imprisoned by the Qaddafi government and are now settling old scores. “It’s our responsibility to protect people,” said Jamal Benour, the justice coordinator for the opposition in Benghazi. “It’s important the killers are punished. The law is most important.”

But some here dismiss talk of Islamists, saying they believe the killings are being carried out by an armed group allied with the rebels, or possibly Qaddafi loyalists pretending to be.

Last week, about a dozen men wearing balaclavas and carrying guns arrived at the house of Youssef al-Tobouli in three pickup trucks. At the time, Mr. Tobouli, a former internal security prison guard who had defected to the rebel side, was at the store. His terrified relatives called friends, and in the gunfight that followed, the room Mr. Tobouli shared with his wife and three children was destroyed by fire.

The attackers were eventually routed, and though they did not identify themselves, they left behind a Mitsubishi pickup truck with “February 17th” — the day Colonel Qaddafi’s opponents mark as the beginning of their revolt — painted on the side, Mr. Tobouli’s cousin said.

“I am very sorry to say that,” said the cousin, Eissa al-Tobouli, referring to the markings on the truck. He added that his cousin was part of a group of former Qaddafi officials who registered their names with rebel officials in Benghazi, on orders from the new authorities to make their defections official. “He paid the price for being in internal security,” the cousin said.

There may have been other attacks. Dr. Omar Khalid, a forensic pathologist at Jalaa Hospital in Benghazi, said the hospital had received at least a dozen bodies of executed men, though it was not clear whether they had worked for the government. The authorities are also investigating the executions of Qaddafi soldiers, said Ali Wanis, the Benghazi district attorney.

One victim, whose throat was slashed, has been in the morgue at Jalaa Hospital since mid-April, unidentified. When his body was found in the Guwarsha area outside Benghazi — near where the bodies of Mr. Sirmany and Mr. Ghaith were found — his feet and hands were bound with rope, the morgue’s manager said.

'War of rumors'
The killings in Benghazi are taking place in a city that otherwise seems safer with each passing day. Police stations burned in February have reopened. Legions of young volunteers have recently taken to the streets, to sweep and pick up the trash.

The rebel authorities are contemplating reopening schools this month, given the improved security. In the midst of a war, the crime rate in Benghazi is lower than it was before the fighting started, many residents say.

Even on calmer streets, the fear of betrayal has led to deadly episodes. Last week, rebel fighters in pickup trucks rushed to the city’s radio station, after an apparently false report that it had been occupied by Qaddafi loyalists. Guns were fired, and a bystander was accidentally killed when a rifle fell off a fighter’s shoulder and went off.

“This is a war of rumors,” said Col. Fawzi Omami, who works as a security guard at the radio station. “People are very edgy.”

Some elements of the rebel security forces have contributed to the discomfort. Mr. Benour, the justice coordinator, said that his office was investigating abuses, including thefts, by the Force for the Protection of the Feb. 17th Revolution, which has official responsibility for arresting Qaddafi loyalists. He said the leader of the force had been suspended.

He said there was no evidence that rebel security forces were implicated in the killings, but admitted the crimes were still a mystery. Salah al-Hami, who was tortured by Colonel Qaddafi’s security agents in the 1990s, said friends had told him he was suspected in the murders of the former Qaddafi officials. Years ago, members of the Hami family were repeatedly jailed as security agents searched for Mr. Hami’s brother Mohamed, a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the 1990s. An uncle and three of his brothers, including Mohamed, were killed by the security services or died in Colonel Qaddafi’s prisons, he said.

Many people here remember the killing of Mohamed al-Hami, on a Benghazi street in 1996. Afterward, the security forces reportedly crucified him before parading his body around Benghazi in the back of a pickup truck.

Mr. Hami denied any involvement in the recent killings. “Never,” he said. “Everybody is going to have a fair trial. I’m against any person who would take matters into their own hands and execute people.”

It was unclear whether Mr. Sirmany and Mr. Ghaith were minor functionaries or senior officers. Mr. Sirmany served in Libya’s special forces and was an interrogator, but he never talked about his work, his brother said. Mr. Ghaith’s family said he simply recorded the interrogations and was happy to join the revolution.

In a mourning tent outside Mr. Ghaith’s house, his wife, Mariam al-Abdali, said: “He didn’t have any enemies. He joined the revolution 20 days after it started.” His son, Abdulrahman Ghaith, said that after his father was abducted, they searched the city until a call came the next day from the hospital.

His father had cuts on his head, and on his left hand, which Dr. Khalid, the forensic pathologist, said was a defensive wound. “His clothes were ripped,” his son said, revealing details that his sisters had not heard before.

“It looked like he resisted,” he said.

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.