GENEVA – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday condemned the reported repeated use of cluster munitions and heavy weaponry by Libyan government forces in their attempt to regain control of the besieged city of Misrata, and said that such attacks on densely populated urban areas, resulting in substantial civilian casualties, could amount to international crimes.
"Reportedly one cluster bomb exploded just a few hundred metres from Misrata hospital, and other reports suggest at least two medical clinics have been hit by mortars or sniper fire," Pillay said. "Since the city is largely cut off, it is not known precisely how many civilians have died or been injured during two months of fighting there, but it is clear that the numbers are now substantial, and that the dead include women and children.”
“Using imprecise weaponry such as cluster munitions, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and other forms of heavy weaponry, in crowded urban areas will inevitably lead to civilian casualties,” Pillay said. “There are also repeated reports of snipers deliberately targeting civilians in Misrata, as well as in other Libyan towns where street fighting has taken place."
"The pro-government forces besieging the city, including their commanders and all other personnel, should be aware that -- with the International Criminal Court investigating possible crimes -- their orders and actions will be subject to intense scrutiny," the High Commissioner added. "Under international law, the deliberate targeting of medical facilities is a war crime, and the deliberate targeting or reckless endangerment of civilians may also amount to serious violations of international human rights law or international humanitarian law."
"I urge the Libyan authorities to face the reality that they are digging themselves and the Libyan population deeper and deeper into the quagmire. They must halt the siege of Misrata and allow aid and medical care to reach the victims of the conflict," Pillay said.
“The unhindered presence of international observers, including media, would help calm the situation and curb excesses,” Pillay said. She expressed serious concern about the treatment of journalists by the Libyan authorities. At least two journalists have been killed, and some 16 others are missing, including ten international journalists and six Libyans. Dozens of others have been detained, assaulted, physically abused -- possibly to the point of torture -- or expelled.
"Journalists have been suffering a terrible toll in terms of assaults, arbitrary detentions and expulsions in all the crises taking place in the Middle East and North Africa, including most recently in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen," Pillay said. "But they have been hardest hit in Libya. I am extremely concerned about all those journalists known to be in detention in Libya, or whose whereabouts are unknown, and call on the Libyan government to release them immediately."
The High Commissioner welcomed the news that Libya had on Monday agreed to the setting up of a UN humanitarian presence in Tripoli, and urged the government "to follow up its verbal assurances with concrete measures, including most importantly and most urgently, lifting the siege of Misrata."
She also urged NATO forces to exercise the utmost caution and vigilance so as not to kill civilians by mistake.