Both sides in Libya's ongoing civil war are being accused of abuses, with forces loyal to fallen leader Moammar Gadhafi blamed for a vast array of possible war crimes and rebels said to be indiscriminately targeting black people.
Pro-Gadhafi troops perched children on tanks to deter NATO attacks, human rights investigators said in a report on Tuesday. It was part of a pattern of rapes, slayings, "disappearances" and other war crimes that they said they found.
The report by Physicians for Human Rights, titled "Witness to War Crimes: Evidence from Misrata, Libya ," is based on interviews of residents in the embattled city of Misrata conducted in June.
A popular uprising in Libya in February against Gadhafi's 42-year-old rule resulted in a civil war with rebels backed by a NATO bombing campaign from the air starting in March.
"Four eyewitnesses reported that (Gadhafi) troops forcibly detained 107 civilians and used them as human shields to guard military munitions from NATO attacks south of Misrata," said the PHR report.
"One father told PHR how (Gadhafi) soldiers forced his two young children to sit on a military tank and threatened the family: 'You'll stay here, and if NATO attacks us, you'll die, too.'"
"The abuses that we gathered evidence of in Misrata are some of the most egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity I've heard of in Libya," said Richard Sollom, deputy director of PHR and author of the report.
With fears running high that the battle for control over the Gadhafi stronghold Sirte would result in a bloodbath, NATO's Col. Roland Lavoie said Tuesday that the warring sides were engaged in "discussions."
Separately, on Monday, Algeria's state news agency reported that members of Gadhafi's family entered the country.
In a surprise twist, Al Arabiya reported Tuesday that Algerian authorities .
"Aisha gave birth very early this morning. She had a little girl. Mother and daughter are doing fine," an unnamed government official reportedly told the news channel.
In Tripoli, a rebel spokesman said on Tuesday they now have "a good idea" where the Libyan dictator is hiding. Gadhafi, who the rebels fear will continue to stoke violence throughout the country, is thought to have fled Tripoli last week.
Ali Tarhouni, a minister in the National Transitional Council, told reporters Tuesday that "we have a good idea where he is. We don't have any doubt that we will catch him."
'All blacks are mercenaries'?Meanwhile, the chairman of the African Union said Libyan rebels may be indiscriminately killing black people because they have confused innocent migrant workers with mercenaries.
AU chairman Jean Ping cited these fears as one reason the continental body has not recognized opposition forces as Libya's interim government.
"NTC [the rebel National Transitional Council] seems to confuse black people with mercenaries. All blacks are mercenaries," Ping said Monday. "If you do that, it means (that the) one-third of the population of Libya, which is black, is also mercenaries. They are killing people, normal workers, mistreating them."
He added: "Maybe it's looters, uncontrolled forces. But then the government should say something, condemn this. We want to see a signal that the African workers that are there, they should be evacuated."
Ping's comments follow concerns from international rights groups about beatings and detentions of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
"I really fear vigilante justice and retribution and attacks by civilians against other civilians," said PHR's Sollom said.
However, Sollom said that while both sides had committed abuses, evidence indicated that crimes by pro-Gadhafi forces were much more widespread.
"There has been some evidence of crimes committed by rebel forces, but certainly nothing anywhere near as widespread and systematic as those committed by Gadhafi's forces," he said.
Rape as weapon of war
PHR obtained copies of military orders as evidence that Gadhafi ordered his troops to starve civilians in Misrata, while pillaging food caches and barring locals from receiving humanitarian aid.
Misrata was liberated by rebels in May after a fierce three-month battle, and they now control most of the country.
Rape was also "a weapon of war," Sollom told the Associated Press. While he said no one has evidence to prove that rape was widespread, the fear of it certainly was, he said.
And it had deadly consequences in the form of "honor killings" of rape victims by their shamed family members.
"One witness reported that (Gadhafi) forces transformed an elementary school into a detention site where they reportedly raped women and girls as young as 14 years old," the report said. It added that it had found no evidence to confirm or deny reports that Gadhafi troops and loyalists were issued Viagra-type drugs to sustain their systematic rapes.
The school where the rapes were said to have taken place was in Tomina, near Misrata, PHR said.
In at least one instance, PHR reported, three sisters — ages 15, 17 and 18 — were raped at Tomina, and their father subsequently slit their throats as an "honor killing" to lift the shame from his family.
PHR also noted that "some in Tomina have stood up against this practice, including a well-known sheik who has publicly advocated for raped women and girls to be seen as brave and bringing honor to their families."
A single act can be deemed a war crime, but when troops commit "systematic and widespread" crimes against civilians, that is a crime against humanity, Sollom said.
As evidence of one such crime, the report includes a copy of a government order for troops to prevent fuel and supplies reaching the city of some 400,000 to 500,000 people.