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Gaddafi’s Death Sparks Celebrations, Calls for Probe, as Libyans Begin New Era Free of Regime

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The circumstances of the death of former Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi remain unclear. Preliminary reports suggest NATO aircraft struck Gaddafi’s convoy near Sirte early on Thursday, but he and a few others escaped on foot and were eventually caught and killed by a unit of fighters from the National Transitional Council. Gaddafi’s burial has now been delayed ahead of an outside investigation into the circumstances of his death. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO had successfully completed its operation and would soon end its mission in Libya. To talk more about the situation in Libya, we go to Sirte to speak with Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch. “This is a very unfortunate way to start the first chapter of the new Libya, with this very brutal killing,” Bouckaert says. “It certainly is already a stain on the record of the new Libya… Justice should be done in a courtroom and not by street mob rule.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Graphic images of a blood-drenched and shaken Muammar Gaddafi have been circulating around the world after the Libyan dictator’s death near his hometown of Sirte yesterday. The images show the former Libyan leader being dragged around by angry fighters, his face and clothes bloodstained. There were scenes of jubilation in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and other areas across Libya as news of his dramatic death spread.

LIBYAN REBEL: [translated] Thanks to God, everything is in order so far. The big joy has been completed. Now we are looking forward to building this country, and have a rest. And God willing, it will be very good.

AMY GOODMAN: The former Libyan leader was killed eight months after the first protests erupted against his 42-year-long rule. The circumstances of his death are not yet clear. Preliminary reports suggest NATO aircraft struck Gaddafi’s convoy near Sirte early on Thursday, but he and a few others escaped on foot and were eventually caught and killed by a unit of fighters from the National Transitional Council. Spokesman of Libya’s military council, Ahmed Bani, said the world would not blame Libyan troops for killing Gaddafi.

AHMED BANI: They met him. Our revolutionaries, our troops, met him. He tried—he tried to resist them, so they killed him. And I’m sure that the world will never blame us. They will never blame our troops. The most important thing is that Gaddafi is killed. How, it’s not so important.

AMY GOODMAN: Now the Associated Press reports Gaddafi’s burial has been delayed ahead of an outside investigation into the circumstances of his death. The NTC had planned for Gaddafi to be buried at an undisclosed location Friday. However, Mohamed Sayeh said a “third party will come from outside of Libya to go through the paperwork.” That third party could be the International Criminal Court. For now, it’s likely Gaddafi’s body will remain in Misurata, the western city to which it was taken after he was captured in Sirte, initially alive.

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO had successfully completed its operation and would soon end its mission in Libya.

SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: After 42 years, Colonel Gaddafi’s rule of fear has come to an end. Finally, Libya can close this long, dark chapter in its history and turn over a new page. NATO and its partners have successfully implemented the United Nations mandate to protect the people of Libya. We will terminate our mission in coordination with the United Nations and the National Transitional Council. And that moment has now moved much closer. And now I call on all Libyans to put aside their differences and work together to build a brighter future.

AMY GOODMAN: That was NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen speaking yesterday in France. President Obama referred to it as a, quote, “momentous day” in Libyan history, and said the United States and its allies worked successfully with the Libyan people to put an end to Gaddafi’s dictatorship.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Faced with the potential of mass atrocities and a call for help from the Libyan people, the United States and our friends and allies stopped Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks. A coalition that included the United States, NATO and Arab nations persevered through the summer to protect Libyan civilians. And meanwhile, the courageous Libyan people fought for their own future and broke the back of the regime. So this is a momentous day in the history of Libya.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the situation in Libya, we’re going directly to Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte to talk to Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. He’s joining us on the telephone.

Peter, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us exactly what is understood what happened in Sirte yesterday with the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I was in Sirte yesterday, and we were working, shortly after midnight, through very heavy bombardment coming from the rebels. At about 10:00, we went downtown and found the rebels celebrating their complete victory. They had taken control of the last stronghold. And soon thereafter, after I went to the hospital, a man arrived with a golden pistol and said he had just taken it from Muammar Gaddafi and that Muammar Gaddafi had been captured.

We went back to the scene this morning and found at least 95 bodies laying in this area where this final gun battle took place. We spoke to one of the commanders at the scene whose base is just across the street. He said, at about 8:30 yesterday morning, a group of 50 vehicles, with about 300 people on it, tried to break out of Sirte. They attacked the rebel base where he was based. NATO then intervened and bombed the convoy. But it was a very bloody battle, which lasted for about three hours. He saw Gaddafi being taken alive from the scene, but being beaten by rebels, as—

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Peter Bouckaert, and we may have just been cut off. Let’s see if we can get him back. He is with Human Rights Watch, and he is in Sirte.

Peter, are you there?

Peter Bouckaert spent the night just outside of Sirte and is describing to us what he understood happened yesterday. We’ll go to a break, and then we’ll come back. This news out of Yemen: the burial of Muammar Gaddafi has been delayed pending an investigation and autopsy. Peter Bouckaert will be joining us in a moment, Human Rights Watch’s emergency director. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We have Peter Bouckaert back on the line with us in Sirte, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. We’re going to try to get in as much as we can with you—I know this is a tough line—Peter, before we lose you again. Describe again what you understood yesterday. You said something like 95 bodies?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes, we found 95 bodies still laying where the battle had taken place yesterday. Many of them were burned beyond recognition from the NATO strike. But at least some of the bodies appeared to have been executed in the aftermath of the battle.

We also talked to the rebel commander, who said that when they found Muammar Gaddafi, rebel—different rebel factions started fighting over who would take him away. Local people and rebels started attacking Gaddafi and pulling out his hair. At some point, he was put on the hood of a vehicle that tried to drive him away, and he fell off. So it must have been quite a [inaudible] Gaddafi. He certainly was alive when he left the scene, and there needs to be an investigation into exactly what happened shortly thereafter, before he arrived in Misurata.

AMY GOODMAN: There are reports that he was shot twice in the legs before being shot in the head. Is that what you understand?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes, he certainly had been wounded already when he was found by the rebel fighters. From the information that we have at the scene of the battle, he was not shot further after he was captured. But there certainly needs to be an independent autopsy and an investigation into exactly how he died. Many questions remain unanswered about the exact circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: It was a French missile in the NATO—it was a French missile that hit his convoy. Is that what you understand?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes, we can’t confirm it’s a French missile, but certainly NATO did intervene and fire missiles. At that time, there were about three separate clusters of fighters, Gaddafi loyalists, attacking this base, and NATO did intervene at about 9:30 yesterday to strike those convoys. And then the gun battle still continued for about an hour and a half. It’s important to stress that there already was an armed confrontation between this fleeing convoy and the rebels when NATO intervened, so it’s not like NATO acted to stop this convoy. It already was engaged with the rebels at that stage.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, it has become a political story. You have the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who hailed the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, but has chastised Congress for its hesitance to assist anti-Gaddafi Libyan rebels and for—he has criticized President Barack Obama’s use of U.S. military resources to assist in the air strikes. He criticized that attack on Obama. He said, “I’m very disappointed in Congress,” a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. “Congress took an irrational view of the War Powers Act. I guarantee you that a lot of Republicans who wanted the War Power Act invoked would not have asked for it to be invoked if President Obama were not president. To me, national security should be as bipartisan as possible.” But Republicans were saying that this was not Obama taking the lead, and they were criticizing him for this, along with Chuck Grassley, the senator. They were saying that we can thank the British and the French.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I think it’s fair to say that, at the NATO level, the French and the British did take a lead. President Obama certainly found himself within very tight political constraints acting in Libya. Human Rights Watch is a neutral organization, both politically and in terms of military intervention. We did not endorse this military intervention. But certainly, from our conversations with the Obama administration, we came away convinced that they did act out of humanitarian concerns in Libya, that they acted to stop a massacre from occurring in Benghazi, and then they found themselves in quite a difficult situation when it became clear that the rebels, by their own, would not be able to overcome what was still a very powerful military. So, I do think we need to have some understanding for those difficult political circumstances that the Obama administration found itself in.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, can you talk about the killing of Gaddafi? Can you talk about the video of him being dragged through the street, the bloody images of his head?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, they are very disturbing images, and it’s certainly important that these events are fully investigated. Speaking to a lot of the rebels here, they justified how Muammar Gaddafi was treated in terms of the brutality he inflicted on his own people. And my response to them was that this is a very unfortunate way to start the first chapter of the new Libya, with this very brutal killing. It certainly is already a stain on the record of the new Libya, and we hope that the circumstances of his death gets fully investigated and that the Transitional Council acts to prevent further acts of vengeance. It’s important that justice is done for the last 42 years, but that justice should be done in a courtroom and not by street mob rule.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a piece by Horace Campbell, a professor of African studies, who said that Gaddafi’s killing, with “all the hallmarks of a coordinated assassination,” marks “one more episode in this NATO war in Libya and North Africa.” The “remilitarization of Africa and new deployment of Africom is a new stage of African politics,” he says. Your response, Peter Bouckaert?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, that’s certainly not our impression on the ground. It appears that Gaddafi was killed not in terms of a coordinated attempt to have him assassinated by the rebel leadership, but rather a situation that got out of control. But it is very important that the rebel authorities, now the new government in Libya, act quickly to stop the many armed groups that are operating in Libya from carrying out these kind of abuses. I was in the city of Bani Walid a few days ago, just after it fell, and we saw widespread looting and destruction there, as well. There’s entire towns, like the town of Tawergha, which is a town of black Libyans just south of Misurata, which are still abandoned because people are not allowed to return to their homes, because they’re accused of being Gaddafi loyalists. And it’s that legacy and that challenge that now confronts the new Libyan government. And it’s really in the next few months, through their actions, that they will decide the future of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, can you talk about your sense of the government now, the different competing forces of the National Transition Council, and where you think it’s headed?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, the National Transitional Council had a lot of influence and power in eastern Libya, where the revolt started. But they’re confronted with a much more complex situation in the west. Many of the towns in the west feel that they fought for their own freedom, especially towns like Zintan and Misurata, who suffered very heavy casualties during the war, and they feel they want to dictate their own future. So, it will be very difficult for the Transitional Council to assert its authority over these different cities, and especially over the fighters from these different cities. They have a real challenge ahead.

Mahmoud Jibril, the president of the council, is due to give an address this afternoon in Benghazi, announcing the fall of Sirte and the beginning of the running of the clock towards elections. So there will be very significant political changes in Libya over the next few months.

Another challenge is the role of the Islamists in the future government. Islamists have played a very important role in the fighting. They’re some of the key rebel commanders, including in Tripoli, which is headed by a man who was rendered by the CIA to Libya. And we hope that those Islamists, who—as long as they commit themselves to respecting human rights and a plurality of views, will not be sidelined from a future administration and will be given the opportunity to show that they are willing to participate in a democratic system. But they, of course, have to—it is important that their behavior is monitored, especially when it comes to issues such as women’s rights and the rights of Sufis in Libya, who have some religious practices which are frowned upon by some of the Islamist group.

AMY GOODMAN: There were scenes in Syria of people cheering when they heard about the death of Muammar Gaddafi. What do you think this means for the leaders in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, what it means for Yemen, for Saleh?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, certainly it sends a very strong message to the leaders in Syria and Yemen that their repressive rule will not be tolerated forever and that there is quite a sordid end for them if they do not meet the people’s demands in terms of human rights and democratic governance. It’s clear that after many, many months of military repression in Syria, protesters have still not given up, and Bashar al-Assad’s clock certainly is ticking. And it does appear that the fall of the Gaddafi government, the liberation of Sirte, has given a boost to the protesters in Yemen and in Syria. You know, but I think it is a bitter—it is a victory with a bitter aftertaste. The bloodshed which ended this final battle in Sirte is certainly to be regretted, and it is a stain on this otherwise very remarkable victory by the revolutionaries in Libya.

AMY GOODMAN: And what this means for Bahrain, the U.S. saying they’d maybe hold off on the latest shipment of weapons to Bahrain, considering what the government is doing to its people, trying doctors and nurses for helping wounded protesters, for example? What message does this send to them, and to Saudi Arabia, which is backing them up?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, Human Rights Watch has been very concerned about the situation in Bahrain for months now, the kind of repression and torture in prisons. We’ve documented several cases of people who have died in prison because of maltreatment. And these very small trials of people, of medics, who are just carrying out their medical duties, certainly are very disturbing.

We’ve also been concerned for months that the Obama administration [inaudible] when it came to Bahrain, in terms of not really speaking out strongly about the very serious human rights abuses there. So it is a positive step that this latest arms shipment has now been suspended.

And I think the message to the rulers across the Middle East is that the kind of repression that they’re used to practice simply will no longer be tolerated, and won’t be tolerated by their own people, but it also won’t be tolerated anymore by the international community.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Peter Bouckaert—and again, I want to tell our viewers and listeners Peter is speaking to us from Sirte, from where Muammar Gaddafi was killed—what this whole last months in Libya means for so-called humanitarian intervention as a strategy?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, the concept of humanitarian intervention, the use of military force to protect people, suffered a very sharp blow in Afghanistan and Iraq, when the concept was misused by the Bush administration. Certainly, I do think that both France and the U.S. did initially intervene in Libya with a humanitarian intent. According to my own discussions with Obama and Sarkozy officials, it was very clear that they were deeply concerned about the civilian population of the country and what would happen if Benghazi was attacked. But they found themselves in a very difficult position at the end of the day, because they were faced with an ineffective rebel force, and they had to go far beyond their original mandate. Originally they had intended to draw a line in the sand around Benghazi to protect—to prevent Gaddafi forces from retaking Benghazi. But at the end of the day, they ended up fighting much of the war for the rebels from the air and carrying out attacks up to the last day, up until this last strike that ended up with the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, what this means, the fact that Libya has oil? Is that why the U.S., France, Britain intervened in Libya in a way that they didn’t in other countries? In fact, in Bahrain, only until recently, supporting the leadership there, which has been so brutal in repressing its own people, but it’s where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I certainly think that the countries who led the intervention in Libya will be receiving serious benefits in terms of preferential treatment for oil contracts. I think it’s a quite simplistic view to say that the West intervened in Libya just because of oil. Maybe I’m naive, but according to my own discussions with Obama officials and French officials, their interest was much more humanitarian in nature.

I think the question of the oil is much more important for Libya’s future, because, unlike Afghanistan and even Iraq, Libya has the resources to rebuild the country and to build real democratic institutions. Those resources were abused in the past. They were spent by corrupt Gaddafi family members and spent all over Africa to shore up support for Gaddafi. But if they are used at home, they certainly could build a much more prosperous and democratic and human-rights-respectful society.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, we want to thank you for spending this time with us, speaking to us on a strained line, but ever important, as he speaks to us from Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi, where he was killed yesterday. Peter Bouckaert is Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. And of course, we will continue to follow what happens. The burial of Muammar Gaddafi has been put off for an investigation to be done about how he died.

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