Libya apologises for desecration of British war graves

Officials condemn destruction of second world war graves in Benghazi filmed in militia video

The Libyan government has been extremely apologetic about the appalling desecration of British second world war graves in the eastern city of Benghazi, a Foreign Office minister said on Sunday.

The statement of regret came after video footage emerged showing graves in a British military cemetery in the city 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 others 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 Foreign Office said more than 200 headstones and the Cross of Remembrance in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Benghazi were deliberately damaged on 24 and 26 February. About a quarter of the headstones in Benghazi military cemetery were also damaged. The Foreign Office has raised the matter with the Libyan government and local police.

More than 1,200 Commonwealth soldiers and airmen are buried in Benghazi. Of the 1,051 identified graves, 851 are British. Many were members of the 7th Armoured Division – the Desert Rats – which played a key role in fighting for control of Libya and Egypt between 1941 and 1943.

Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne said people would be understandably upset by images of damaged graves. But he said the attacks appeared to be part of a wider desecration and were not confined to British or Christian graves. Nor did they represent a response to last year’s military action when British aircraft took part in a campaign that helped topple Colonel Gaddafi, he added.

“There is an appalling story and people will be shocked by the photos,” he told the Murnaghan programme on Sky News . “My grandfather’s generation were truly heroic in that part of Africa in the second world war and I think people will be shocked by what they see.

“It is worth saying the Libyan authorities themselves are shocked too. We have had direct dealings with them. They have been extremely apologetic and made a very strong commitment they will get to the bottom of this happening. They will try and do everything they can to resolve it.”

He added: “I would not want people to think this is somehow an ingratitude by the government of Libya. That’s not the case.”

In a statement on its website, the National Transitional Council expressed deep regret at the desecration which it “strongly condemned”.

A Commonwealth War Graves Commission spokesman said headstones had been broken and disfigured in both the Benghazi war cemetery and the Benghazi British military cemetery.

“Both cemeteries will be restored to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those commemorated at Benghazi, but this could take some time because we will need to source replacement stones,” he said. “We will also need to be sure that it’s safe for the detailed work to be carried out, but in the meantime we will ensure that temporary markers are erected over the graves.”

No militia has claimed responsibility for the desecration, but Libyan sources say the dress and comments of those filmed suggest 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 handful of Islamist militias in Libya, the Omar Mukghtar Brigade, condemned the attack. “Whoever did this attack was wrong,” said spokesman Abdul Jawad Albaree. “Whoever did it wants to destroy whatever relations Libya has with Britain.” © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

from Sam Jones, Chris Stephen


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