The destruction of a cemetery near Benghazi highlights the limited control Libya’s government has over armed groups
Video footage has been released showing graves in a British military cemetery in Libya being destroyed by what appears to be an Islamist militia.
The video, shot by the militia themselves, shows more than 30 armed men kicking down the gravestones of British servicemen while comrades use sledgehammers to break the cenotaph. “Break the cross of the dogs!” one man can be heard shouting as another soldier perches on a ladder to smash the cenotaph cross with a mallet.
The cemetery, near the eastern city of Benghazi, hold the remains of more than 100 British and Commonwealth servicemen who fought for Montgomery’s Eighth Army in the second world war.
Its desecration has caused shockwaves in both Libya and in Britain, with MP Daniel Kawczynski, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Libya, labelling the militia “desecrators”.
In Libya, the ruling National Transitional Council last week issued an apology on its website, with one official blaming the destruction on “three young men”. But the video, which was recorded by the militia itself, shows the attack to be more organised; the unit arrives equipped with sledgehammers and a ladder.
None of the perpetrators has been arrested and the cemetery, one of dozens across Libya built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after the second world war, is today in ruins.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission said no staff had been hurt, but had reports that a second cemetery, also near Benghazi, had been vandalised. “We are awaiting a detailed report, but in both cemeteries headstones were broken and disfigured,” it said in a statement.
The Foreign Office said 200 tombs were damaged at one cemetery, the Cross of Remembrance, and a quarter of graves at the Benghazi military cemetery. Libya’s government described the damage as “irresponsible and criminal” and said it would punish those responsible.
In the video few of the militia make any attempt to disguise their identities, apparently unconcerned about being held to account, including the cameraman, a young man in a black-and-white scarf who films himself attacking a white marble gravestone. The reasons for the attack remain unclear, but are possibly connected to anti-American protests following the burning of the Qur’an in Afghanistan last month. One militiaman can be heard saying he wants to make war on the “crusaders”.
Another militiaman complains that he cannot kick down one grave because “this soldier must have been good to his parents” and the cameraman replies: “Come on, they are all dogs, who cares.” A gravestone bearing the Star of David of a Jewish serviceman is singled out.
No militia has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but Libyan sources say the dress and comments of those filmed indicate that they are a jihadist brigade.
“We don’t support this action,” said Farouk Ben Ahmeda, a militiaman in Misrata. “This is a sin. These guys are messing up the revolution.”
One of the most prominent of the clutch of Islamist militias in Libya, the Omar Mukghtar Brigade, condemned the attack. “Whoever did this attack was wrong,” said brigade spokesman Abdul Jawad Albaree. “Whoever did it wants to destroy whatever relations Libya has with Britain.”
Kawczynski called on the UK authorities to make sure that the perpetrators were prosecuted. “The British government must take an active interest in the case,” he said. “We need to highlight to the NTC that, if they do not undertake effective procedures against those who committed this action, confidence in the rule of law will suffer.”
The brazenness of the attack highlights the impunity with which some militias operate in post-Gaddafi Libya. In Tripoli, a rogue militia continues to hold two British journalists, reporter Nicholas Davies-Jones, 36, and cameraman Gareth Montgomery-Johnson, 37.
The pair were snatched by the militia 10 days ago while filming late at night in the capital, and their captors say they are being investigated because they were in Libya without visas working for the Iranian-operated Press TV.
Montgomery-Johnson’s sister, Melanie Gribble, told the Observer she was desperate to get in touch with the pair. “I’m worried. I get different advice. Some say hold off, others say push it.”
Amnesty International’s Donatella Rovera says the two cases highlight the lack of control Libya’s central government exercises over armed groups. “The NTC’s lack of action is an indication of their own inability or unwillingness to confront the militias,” she said.
The cemetery attack underlines the different outlook that separates Libya’s Islamist militias from secular groups. While mainstream units regard Britain as an ally, thanks to the role that Nato played in last year’s revolution, Islamist groups view Britain and the west as a threat.
Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, which last week launched its own political party to contest June’s elections, has distanced itself from the attacks. Zarroug Koukle, from the Brotherhood, said those responsible should be educated rather than punished.
from Chris Stephen