By: Harriet Sherwood
April 11, 2011
Tens of thousands of children trapped in intense fighting in Misrata are in serious danger amid concern over a humanitarian crisis in the only city in western Libya not under the control of Muammar Gaddafi.
At least 20 children, mostly under the age of 10, have been killed in the besieged city in the past month, according to Unicef, the UN children’s agency. Many more have been injured by gunfire or shrapnel from mortars and tank shells.Thousands of children are caught in the middle of the battle to control the city that has been raging for more than six weeks. Most lack access to sanitation and safe drinking water, Unicef said.
Shelling by Libyan troops continued on Monday, with al-Jazeera quoting a rebel spokesman as saying five people had been killed and about 20 wounded.
“More and more children in this city are being killed, injured and denied their essential needs due to the fighting,” said Shahida Azfar of Unicef. “Until the fighting stops we face the intolerable inevitability of children continuing to die and suffer in this war zone.”
At least 250 people in the town, mostly civilians, have died in the past month according to two doctors interviewed by phone by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Many residents have fled the centre of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city with a peacetime population of about 300,000, since fierce fighting began. The Libyan government said it had set up camps for refugees on the outskirts of the war-ravaged city.
However, it has refused journalists access to the city, citing safety reasons. A government-organised trip to Misrata last week took foreign media representatives to a field several miles from the centre, from where it was possible to see thick columns of black smoke and hear Nato military aircraft overhead. Officials insisted it was not safe to go further.
The Libyan regime has prevented humanitarian aid reaching Misrata for more than a month and only allowed aid ships to dock in the past few days.
“The Libyan government’s near-siege of Misrata has not prevented reports of serious abuses getting out,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW. “We’ve heard disturbing accounts of shelling and shooting at a clinic and in populated areas, killing civilians where no battle was raging.”
HRW interviewed 17 injured people evacuated from Misrata by boat who reported deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the city. Most believed their injuries had been caused by shelling and sniper fire by Gaddafi forces.
One, Jamal Muhammad Suaib, 35, said three members of his family had been killed by government soldiers as they tried to reach safety. On 17 March, he said, uniformed soldiers entered the family home by force, stole valuables and threatened to return.
The extended family fled in three cars, which were stopped by soldiers who opened fire without warning, killing Suaib’s four-year-old niece, his brother and father. Suaib, his wife and baby son were injured. “My wife was holding my son,” he told HRW. “The bullet hit her in the arm and ricocheted into my son’s face. None of us had a weapon. We were just families looking for a safe place to stay.”
The city council in Misrata has recorded the names of about 1,000 people who have gone missing since the start of the conflict, HRW said.
About 6,000 migrant workers, mainly from Egypt and sub-Saharan countries, are trapped by the fighting, it reported. They are living in tents without safe drinking water or sanitation, hoping to be evacuated.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Monday it had been given permission by the Libyan government to open an office in Tripoli. It has been operating from Benghazi in the east of the country for a month.
Jean-Michel Monod, the ICRC’s regional director, said its staff would visit Misrata to evaluate the scale of the humanitarian crisis. “We hope we will be able to do valuable work,” he said, adding that the regime had assured it of unrestricted access to the besieged city.