Rights groups raise concerns as relatives describe how family members were killed as they tried to flee besieged Benghazi neighbourhood
Starving residents of a besieged neighbourhood in the eastern city of Benghazi were killed by members of Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) as they tried to flee aboard a bus to find food last month, relatives of the victims have told Middle East Eye.
The brother of the bus driver said he believed that several members of his family, including his mother and three of his siblings, had been among about 25 people killed in the attack as they tried to leave the neighbourhood of Ganfouda on 18 March. The area had been under siege since 2014.
"My brother, Naser el-Jarari, was driving a bus of around 25 civilians northbound in search of food and water," Ali Hamza el-Jaraji told MEE. "They were attacked, and most of them were killed in cold blood. The only survivor of the attack that we know of, is my sister Ibtesam Abdullah el-Jarari, who was taken away in an army vehicle."
— Ahmed El-Gasir (@amelgasir) March 28, 2017
El-Jaraji shared photos of the aftermath of the alleged attack with MEE which he said showed the bodies of the victims. MEE cannot independently verify the images.
Guma El-Gamaty, the head of the Taghyeer Party in Libya and a member of the Libyan Political Dialogue group, told MEE that fighters loyal to Haftar had also disinterred and mutilated the bodies of people who had died in recent weeks.
"There has been mass murder of civilians including women and children escaping the war zone ... piling up of bodies and burning them. These are some of the examples of barbaric acts and violations of human rights that amount to war crimes committed by Haftar fighters in the last few weeks," El-Gamaty said.
"The deplorable conduct of members of the Libyan National Army in these videos, which show the fatal shooting of defenceless captives, violates international humanitarian law and amounts to a war crime," said Heba Morayef, North Africa research director at Amnesty International.
War crimes concerns
Concerns about the alleged incidents have been raised by Human Rights Watch, which said that LNA forces may have committed war crimes and called on Haftar to launch a "full and transparent investigation into recent alleged crimes by forces under his command, including attacks on civilians, alleged summary executions, and the mutilation and desecration of corpses".
Speaking on 21 March, Wanis Boukhamada, an LNA special forces spokesperson, denounced the alleged abuses and called for those responsible to be prosecuted and punished.
But in a separate statement posted on Facebook on the same day, an LNA spokesperson said the bodies alleged to have been abused had been buried in a residential area and needed to be exhumed, and said that the bodies of some of its fighters had also been subjected to mistreatment in the past.
MEE reached out to the LNA for further comment but did not get a response.
Martin Kobler, the UN special envoy to Libya, said he welcomed the LNA's investigation and added that human rights violations were being committed across Libya.
In a statement, Kobler said that those responsible could be held criminally liable at the International Criminal Court.
— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) March 22, 2017
El-Jarari said that his mother and four siblings, along with about 20 other civilians, had been making their way towards al-Sabri, a neighbourhood in the north of Benghazi, in search of food when their bus was ambushed by LNA fighters.
He said his mother, Aalya Faleh, and three siblings, Ibrahim el-Jarari, Mahmoud el-Jarari, Fariha el-Jarari, were killed in the ambush, while the whereabouts of his sister Ibtesam el-Jarari, a professor of mathematics at the University of Benghazi, remained unknown.
El-Jarari said that none of the family had ever taken up arms and that his mother had discouraged her children from getting involved in violence.
"Even during the revolution when everyone joined the fight against [ex-Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi, my family never took up arms. They were 100 percent civilians 100 percent of the time," he said.
Another relative of the residents of Ganfouda told MEE that the LNA had been maintaining a "starvation camp" there "with the blessing of their leader Haftar".
The United Nations-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli, along with human rights organisations, believe that between 126 to 133 civilian families are being held captive in Ganfouda.
"By issuing statements justifying these barbaric acts, the LNA leadership is implicating themselves in what appear to be war crimes," Human Rights Watch said in its statement on 22 March.
Hanan Salah, HRW's senior Libya researcher, referring to a video in which an LNA official appeared to suggest that no boys older than 14 would be allowed to leave alive, said: "The LNA is trying to force mothers to leave behind their 15-year-old sons in order to survive."
Tamim al-Gharyani, the head of the Benghazi Crisis Committee which is affiliated with the government in Tripoli, said the exact number of civilians killed was not confirmed because of communication difficulties and continued fighting.
He said that the besieged civilians included local residents of Ganfouda, as well as people displaced from other Benghazi neighbourhoods, and an unknown number of foreign workers.
Last year, Sudan's foreign ministry said that about 200 of its citizens were trapped and several had been killed.
Ganfouda has been besieged since 2014 when the neighbourhood was the scene of clashes between Haftar's LNA and rival militia groups amid a battle for control of eastern Libya. The LNA accuses the militias it is fighting and Ganfouda residents of being affiliated to the Islamic State (IS) group.
MEE has previously reported on how Haftar's force have targeted rival militias while claiming to be fighting IS, including calling in air strikes carried out by Emirati pilots and backed by an international anti-IS coalition also including French, British and US forces.
Attacks by the LNA on Ganfouda were stepped up in April 2016 with activists reporting air strikes on civilian homes, schools, clinics and mosques, and “deteriorating humanitarian conditions include shortfalls of water, food and medicine”.
Free Ganfouda, a Canadian-based activist website, said there had also been reports that deliveries of emergency aid had been blocked.
In a report published last September, Amnesty International said that "time is running out for civilians in Ganfouda, who are being left to die trapped by the fighting. While bombs and shells continue to rain down on them, civilians are struggling to survive on rotten food and dirty water."
One resident quoted by Amnesty said: "Children look like skin and bone because of the lack of food and poor nutrition."
One mother said that her three-year-old daughter had asked her what a cucumber was. "Children are eating their nails asking when their day will come," another resident said.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.