Libya conflict: Black African migrants caught in backlash

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Media captionLibyan migrants claim abuse from NTC fighters

Hundreds of African migrant workers in Libya have been imprisoned by fighters allied to the new interim authorities, accused of being mercenaries for Col Muammar Gaddafi, and there are claims that homes have been looted, and women and girls beaten and raped, as the BBC's Ian Pannell reports.

It was a visit the Nigerian family had been dreading.

They had been hiding in their tiny slum home in a Tripoli suburb since Col Gaddafi had been swept from power, fearing the knock at the door. Earlier this month 20 rebel fighters came, demanding to be let in, shouting "murtazaka".

It is the word every black African in Libya knows too well. Murtazaka is Arabic for "mercenary", the armed men allegedly employed by the former regime to carry out some of the worst excesses of the conflict.

The fighters forced their way into the Nigerian family's home. They beat the couple living there. They stole their possessions and money, abducted the father of the house and turned on his 16-year-old daughter. She told us what happened:

"A group of armed men came to our house. They started knocking, they came in saying 'murtazaka'. They locked my mother inside a toilet. Six of them raped me. They took our belongings and money. My father tried to stop them but they hit him and carried him away."

That was nearly three weeks ago and she has not seen or heard of her father since.

Violent campaign

When rebel fighters moved into Tripoli last month, an immediate hunt began for former regime loyalists and African mercenaries accused of working for Col Gaddafi.

Evidence has emerged in a series of interviews that suggests that some engaged in a violent campaign of abuse and intimidation against the black immigrant community in Tripoli.

Hundreds of men have been arrested with little or no evidence, homes have been pillaged and people beaten up. Most victims are too afraid to be identified but they contacted the BBC to air their grievances.

One man showed us around another home that had been ransacked. A thick iron bar in the corner of the dark room had been used to beat the men and the women there as the rebels made off with their money and few possessions.

He told us he was glad when Col Gaddafi was overthrown, expecting a better life. Instead he and hundreds of others black Africans have become victims, a soft target.

"This is the African continent, I am an African, this is my land. Is it because of my colour, because I am a black man? We don't have a voice. Who would you to turn to?"

On the outskirts of the city we were invited to film a truck-load of men from Niger who had just been picked up. They too were accused of being mercenaries while being made to chant anti-Gaddafi slogans by leering fighters before being put to work hauling boxes of documents and weapons found in the woods.

Casual manual labour

Image caption This man said 20 men raided his house

There are no figures for how many foreign mercenaries Col Gaddafi employed.

It is almost certainly far fewer than the rebel fighters suspected. Most black Africans in Libya have been living here for years doing casual manual labour.

But just as it was easier to suspect foreigners (rather than Libyans) of doing the Colonel's bidding throughout the course of battles for cities like Benghazi and Misrata, so it is now easier to round up those who can be easily distinguished by the colour of their skin.

The transitional council has told its fighters to avoid revenge attacks and there has been far less violence than many had feared. But the city's jails are still full of men detained with little or no evidence, with no access to lawyers or even their families. One woman showed us the black eye she received for arguing with the fighters as they dragged her husband away:

"There has been no communication. I am scared of everything happening in this country. I am now begging them to just leave my husband, he's innocent, he's very quiet, he couldn't even fight me," she said.

The leadership of the National Transitional Council has repeatedly called for restraint from its fighters, urging them to avoid revenge attacks. But it is clear that some appear to have ignored this.

Libya's new leaders will have to distinguish themselves in many ways, not least how they guarantee the freedom, dignity and justice that so many have fought and died for.

But if it is to mean anything it must apply to all.