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Anti-Qaddafi Forces Hold Suspected Mercenaries From Eastern Europe

A Libyan rebel argues with a man suspected of being a mercenary for Muammar Qaddafi, in a district sports center next to the medina, set up as provisory jail, in Tripoli, on August 30.
The Ukrainian government says it is looking into reports by Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) that it has captured a number of Ukrainian and other Eastern European nationals who are accused of fighting as mercenaries for Muammar Qaddafi.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said on September 5 that 22 Ukrainian citizens were being held in Tripoli by the NTC, which accuses them of serving as snipers for pro-Qaddafi forces.

The detainees deny the accusations and claim they were working in Libya as engineers for the Russian-Libyan Dakara oil company, a denial that was repeated in Kyiv by Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Voloshyn.

"These Ukrainians did not hold guns in their hands and did not take part in military actions in any way," Voloshyn said. "By the way, no official charges have been made."

Ukraine had extensive economic ties with the Qaddafi government and up to 1,500 Ukrainian nationals were believed to be in Libya when fighting broke out there in February. However, Kyiv recognized the NTC on September 1.

The exact number and nationalities of the detainees is unclear.

Uniforms, Ammunition Found

Abdel Majeed Ibrahim, an NTC military commander, told journalists in Tripoli on September 5 that the group also included Belarusians -- but that claim was denied today by the Foreign Ministry in Minsk, whose spokesman said there were "no armed Belarusians in Libya."

Ibrahim also said the group entered Libya through neighboring Tunisia for the purpose of fighting for Qaddafi.

"We were informed by some intelligence sources that a group of snipers of various European nationalities, including Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others, have been brought [to Libya] by the Libyan regime," Ibrahim said.

"According to the information we received, the group entered Libya through the port of Nufeida in Tunisia before they were moved to Tripoli."

General Abdul Hafeezs Keilani said at the same press conference that the detainees claimed to be working for an oil company, that their documents indicated they entered the country on July 11, and that their luggage included uniforms and quasi-military documents.

"When we searched their belongings we found military uniforms and ammunition for Kalashnikov rifles, and we also found this paper that authorizes them to move around," Keilani said.

"The papers are issued by the Al-Kaff Brigade, which is one of the main [pro-Qaddafi] groups fighting the rebels."

A 'Sensitive Time' For Foreigners

Another NTC representative, Othman bin Othman, was quoted by AP on September 5 as denying that any weapons had been found, but he maintained that the group had entered the country illegally "during a very sensitive time."

AP also reported that NTC forces have captured more than 5,000 prisoners, many of whom are being held in squalid, makeshift detention centers. The global campaign group Human Rights Watch has called on the NTC to stop "arbitrary" arrests of accused mercenaries and to set up a credible panel to review such accusations.

Qaddafi is believed to have recruited thousands of mercenaries, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries, Human Rights Watch has urged the NTC to prevent discrimination against dark-skinned people on the pretext that they might be mercenaries.

On September 4, several dozen Somalis accused of fighting for Qaddafi were released to the custody of the United Nations' main refugee agency.

with RFE/RL and agency reports