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Gadhafi loyalists used civilians as shields, rights group says

Libyan troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi forced civilians to act as human shields, perching children on tanks to deter NATO attacks, human rights investigators said in a report released today.

It was part of a pattern of rapes, slayings, "disappearances" and other war crimes they said they found.

Physicians for Human Rights was able to get a team of interviewers into the embattled city of Misrata from June 5 to 12, just after Libyan rebel forces expelled Gadhafi's loyalists.

Interviewing dozens of survivors of the two-month siege, the Boston-based group found widespread evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including summary slayings, hostage-taking, rapes, beatings and use of mosques, schools and marketplaces as weapons depots.

"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," the report said.

"One father told [the physicians group] how 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 group 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.

Rape was also "a weapon of war," Richard Sollom, the lead author of the report, 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.

Physicians for Human Rights only investigated the abuses committed by Gadhafi forces. The timing of their visit, and its focus on Misrata, meant the group was not in a position to comment on allegations of violations by the Libyan rebels or by NATO, the group said.

It urged the rebel National Transitional Council to enforce law and order, suppress vigilantism and hold all rights violators responsible and prevent them from occupying positions of power.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the African Union said rebels may be indiscriminately killing black people because they have confused innocent migrant workers with mercenaries, citing the fears as one reason the union has not recognized opposition forces as Libya's interim government.

"NTC seems to confuse black people with mercenaries," AU Chairman Jean Ping said Monday, referring to the rebels' National Transitional Council. "All blacks are mercenaries. If you do that, it means 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."

National Transitional Council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga denied the AU claims: "These allegations have been made during the early days of the revolution. This never took place."

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