Fear and hunger as thousands of Africans hide in Libya

Posted at 03/03/11 11:31 AM

DAKAR, Senegal - In the rush to rescue foreigners from Libya, thousands of migrant Africans are being left behind, holed up at home terrified as insurgents mistake them for mercenaries fighting for Moammar Gaddafi's regime.

Rumours that Gaddafi has hired fighters from south of the Sahara to quash a popular revolt against him have made hordes of Africans targets of popular anger, many from poor countries unable to organise their evacuation.

Abdulai Sisay, a student at a college of Islam in Benghazi, is one of up to 4,000 Sierra Leoneans in Libya, and his mother Aminata, 60, in Freetown says she is in constant touch with him.

"He is very much afraid as he is barricaded in his rented house and refuses to open his doors when there is a knock," she told AFP on Wednesday.

"He says some of his friends have been attacked by unknown armed people because he is black. When he peeps through the window, he constantly hears shouts of 'kill the black mercenaries financed by Gaddafi.'"

It is not known how many Africans make up the considerable foreign labour force lured to the oil-rich nation, and countries have reported anything from several thousand to 300,000 from neighbouring Chad and 50,000 from Nigeria.

Countries like Sierra Leone are looking for help to evacuate their citizens, while others send planes for small groups of people such as key embassy staff or adopt a wait-and-see attitude while citizens stream across borders.

The UN refugee agency and International Organisation for Migration report some 140,000 people have already left Libya by land.

"Day after day, some governments are managing to send boats to evacuate thousands of their nationals but Africans, who are the most vulnerable and destitute, are being left behind," said Human Rights Watch emergency director Peter Bouckaert.

"The sub-Saharan African workers are in dire need of evacuation because of the threats they face in Libya," he said in a statement released Wednesday.

The head of the Libyan Human Rights League Ali Zeidan accuses Chad of leading a group of foreign fighters including citizens from Niger, Mali, Zimbabwe and Liberia.

"There are about 25,000 mercenaries in Libya, but they have not all been deployed yet. They are being led by two generals commanded by Chad's ambassador to Libya Daoussa Deby, the brother of Chadian President Idriss Deby."

He said officers were being paid 2,000 US dollars a day and soldiers 300 dollars a day.

El Hadj Aboubacar in Niamey has three children in Tripoli.

"They say that as soon as a black ventures into areas controlled by insurgents he is mistaken for a mercenary hired by Gaddafi and killed," he said.

Also from Niger, Boubacar Gouzaye told a radio station in his country that Africans remained cloistered in their rooms with nothing to eat.

"There is a severe shortage of vegetables, food, people are eating only boiled white rice," he said.

Several governments have denied their nationals are working as mercenaries in Libya; however north Malian officials say hundreds of young Tuaregs from Mali and Niger, including ex-rebels, had been recruited.

Embattled leader Gaddafi, who has lost control of the majority of his country, has used his 41-year reign to establish himself as a true pan-Africanist and self-proclaimed "King of Kings of Africa."

He has financed and trained rebels in many of the continent's major conflicts, poured petro-dollars into struggling countries as well as the African Union and backed up political movements while pushing his dream for a United States of Africa.

However Gaddafi has come under fire for racism against black Africans, who he referred to as "starving and ignorant barbarians" in Italy last year.

The UN humanitarian office (OCHA) has raised fears of "a massive movement" of people towards Niger as a result of the threat they are facing in Libya, suspecting as many as 100,000 may flee to the neighbouring country within a month.