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In Tripoli, African 'mercenaries' at risk

Over the weekend, concerns grew in Tripoli about the fate of black African workers who many Libyan rebels believe were mercenaries for Qaddafi.

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A Libyan rebel fighter gestures next to a poster of Muammar Qaddafi on the ground at one of several checkpoints in Tripoli August 29. Qaddafi's whereabouts have been unknown since Tripoli fell to his foes and his 42-year-old rule collapsed a week ago.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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The gates of the prison in the Ain Zarra suburb of Tripoli open to admit an open truckload of detainees. They are all sub-Saharan Africans. Inside, three huge riot police trucks sit in the courtyard with several dozen more detainees inside; most of them are black Africans, too.

“We were all hiding in the basement of my house when they arrested us,” says one man, who claims he is from Niger and has been working as a welder in Libya for two years.

The men are all accused of being mortazaga, mercenaries, in the service of Col. Muammar Qaddafi. But they maintain that they are only guest workers caught up in the violence of Libya’s war.

“We will conduct an investigation,” promises an official who declines to give his name. “We will contact their embassies to see if they are who they [say they] are. If they really are guest workers, we will let them go. Otherwise we will send them to the courts.” There are no working courts in Tripoli, and no embassies are open.

Across Libya, a predominantly Arab country, suspicion and resentment of black Africans runs high. While racism is considered partly to blame, it has been compounded by Libyans upset that Qaddafi has poured money into buying the loyalty of black Libyans in the south and other African groups across the country.

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