Libya’s leadership has apologised after armed men smashed the graves of British and Italian soldiers killed during World War II.
Amateur video footage of the attack, posted on social networking site Facebook, showed men casually kicking over headstones in a war cemetery and using sledgehammers to smash a metal and stone cross.
One man can be heard saying: “This is a grave of a Christian,” as he uprooted a stone headstone from the ground.
Another voice in the footage says of the people buried in the cemetery: “These are dogs”.
The attack happened in the eastern city of Benghazi, near where British and Commonwealth troops fought heavy battles against German and Italian forces during the 1939-45 war.
The National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s interim leadership since last year’s uprising forced out Muammar Gaddafi, said it would pursue those responsible.
“The government is appalled and disgusted by these reports, and condemns without reservation this act of desecration“
– Spokesperson for Australian PM
“The NTC apologises for the incident with the foreign graves, especially the British and Italian graves,” the council said in a statement. “This action is not in keeping with Islam.”
“The NTC will confront this matter and, in line with Libyan law, will pursue those people who committed this act. This action does not reflect Libyan public opinion because Islam calls for respect for other religions.”
Some 1,214 Commonwealth troops who died in the North African desert battles of World War II are buried at the Benghazi War Cemetery, where around 200 headstones were damaged.
Of the 1,051 identified graves, 851 are those of British troops, with others belonging to Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and Indian servicemen.
Australia on Monday said it was “appalled and disgusted” by the desecration of Commonwealth war graves and was working to determine whether its own soldiers’ headstones had been affected.
“The government is appalled and disgusted by these reports, and condemns without reservation this act of desecration,” a spokesperson for the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told the AFP news agency.
“Should the reports prove accurate, we call on the Libyan interim government to investigate and hold to account those responsible.”
Broken and disfigured
Around a quarter of the headstones in the nearby Benghazi British Military Cemetery, which does not contain World War II graves, were also damaged.
A spokesperson for the British foreign office told Al Jazeera that officials from the British embassy in Tripoli had immediately visited the site, raised this issue with the Libyan foreign affairs ministry and Benghazi’s police chief.
He said there was no evidence to suggest the grave attacks were linked to anger over the burning of copies of the Quran on a NATO air base in Afghanistan.
“It is our understanding that attacks by a similar groups have also desecrated Muslim shrines… The Libyan authorities have instructed the police to make regular patrols to ensure no further attacks occur,” the spokesperson said.
In a statement on its website, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said both the Benghazi War Cemetery and the Benghazi British Military Cemetery were attacked over the weekend.
|Headstones at graveyards for British Commonwealth and Italian soldiers were broken and disfigured [AFP]|
“We are awaiting a detailed report but in both cemeteries, headstones were broken and disfigured,” it said.
“Both cemeteries will be restored to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those commemorated at Benghazi, but this could take some time because we will need to source replacement stones.
“We will also need to be sure that it’s safe for the detailed work to be carried out, but in the meantime we will ensure that temporary markers are erected over the graves,” the statement said.
The NTC has close ties with Western countries after a NATO bombing campaign helped it to topple the government of Muammar Gaddafi.
However, a minority of hardline Islamists, who are opposed to any non-Muslim presence and in some cases have formed into heavily-armed groups, have gained ground since Gaddafi’s 42-year rule ended last August. The government in Tripoli has struggled to assert its authority over these groups.
Salafists, followers of an ultra-purist interpretation of Islam, have already destroyed several tombs of Muslim holy men in Libya, which they consider to be idolatrous.
The footage posted on Facebook showed about two dozen men in a cemetery in daylight. Several carried automatic rifles and were wearing mismatched camouflage uniforms.
In an unhurried and systematic way, they kicked over neatly-arranged rows of headstones. “We will start with this and then carry on,” says one voice on the recording. At one point, the person filming the footage also took his boot to a headstone.
Another group had placed a ladder against the large stone and metal cross overlooking the cemetery, and was smashing it with hammers. Several onlookers milled around the cemetery but no one was seen on the footage trying to intervene.
At one point, a voice on the recording says: “Come and see the inscription on this … There is Hebrew writing on it.”