BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — The rebel administration that controls much of eastern Libya is distributing guidelines on how its fighters should treat prisoners of war, following a string of allegations that rebels have engaged in unlawful arrests, mistreated captives and killed sub-Saharan Africans wrongly accused of being mercenaries.
The rebels are holding about 300 prisoners, including 10 foreigners, according to the top legal affairs official in the newly created National Transitional Council, Salwa Fawzi al-Deghali.
The rebels say they want to make sure that these and future captives are treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions governing the humanitarian treatment of prisoners and other victims of war.
The low prisoner count raises questions about what has happened to the scores of alleged mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa that the rebels earlier reported capturing. The rebels have accused Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi of bringing in thousands of mercenaries, and their fate remains an open question.
Questions also are being asked about rebel detention and interrogation of people living in the areas they control who are suspected of supporting Gadhafi.
Al-Deghali said pamphlets containing rules on POW treatment were being handed out to rebel fighters on the front lines because most are civilians and aren't familiar with the Geneva Conventions. "They need guidelines and advice about the rules and procedures they should respect," she said.
"The NTC firmly believes that these prisoners' rights are important, not just as a matter of principle, but that they will help all Libyans to build peace between themselves once the war is over."
She said anyone who broke the rules would be punished, but did not say what the punishment would be.
The guidelines call for prisoners to have access to medical care, to be allowed to freely practice their religion and contact their families, and to receive visits from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The standards may be workable in the rebels' Benghazi stronghold, but it remains unclear how they would be carried out on the front lines, where the poorly equipped rebels don't have communications equipment and medical facilities for themselves, much less for prisoners.
"When capturing someone, first make sure whether he is a fighter or a civilian. If he is a civilian, let him go," the Arabic-language guidelines state. Fighters can be held for an initial 48 hours and interrogated, before being referred to the justice system if suspected of crimes such as killing civilians.
Allegations also have been made that Gadhafi's forces have mistreated POWs and political opponents, but international rights groups say they have been unable to get any information from the regime.
Al-Deghali said about 150 prisoners were being held in Benghazi, the rebel bastion on Libya's northeast Mediterranean coast, and 150 were in Misrata, the rebel-held port in the west that has been under siege for more than two months. The 10 foreigners include Chadians, Ghanaians, Algerians and Egyptians, she said.
One European who was in Misrata a month ago, said he saw 27 bodies of what appeared to be sub-Saharan Africans, all shot in the back of the head.
"I saw bodies brought in on the back of pickup trucks around Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata," said the man, who didn't want to be identified by name or nationality for fear of reprisal.
He said he counted 11 bodies in one truck and nine in another. The rebels told him they were mercenaries from Mali, Chad and Niger, he said.
Near Misrata's vegetable market, he said he saw seven more bodies near what appeared to be an "execution ground." All appeared to have been forced to their knees and killed with a bullet to the back of the head.
Since then, however, prisoner treatment appears to have improved: Last week, reporters in Misrata were shown prisoners held in two floors of a school, their wounds bandaged, some praying.
Amnesty International and the ICRC say they have visited people detained at three or four locations in Benghazi, and both put the number held there at around 200 — including civilians suspected of supporting Gadhafi.
But people are being held at a score or more places in the city, security sources said, including military barracks, government buildings used by some 30 self-appointed rebel internal security units and at some High Court offices.
A new interior minister appointed two weeks ago is charged with streamlining and organizing the security units, Council vice chairman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga told the AP.
AP reporters tried unsuccessfully for days to see detainees in Benghazi. Despite a letter of permission from the council's media center, rebel officers refused to allow access.
Before the uprising erupted three months ago, Libya, with a population of about 5.5 million, hosted 2.5 million foreign workers.
Al-Deghali says the rebels now acknowledge that some people detained as suspected mercenary fighters were just foreign workers swept up in the chaos.
"But we released them after we interrogated them (because) they turned out to be innocent — just expatriates, foreign workers," she said.
Still, residents in Benghazi say some foreign fighters — who stood out, they said, because they wore yellow hard hats — were migrant workers hastily paid to join the battle on Gadhafi's side.
The U.N. Human Rights Council is looking into rights violations in Libya, including extra-judicial killings on both sides.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague said he is investigating reports of unlawful arrest, mistreatment and killing of "sub-Saharan African civilians wrongly perceived to be mercenaries."
He said angry mobs in rebel-controlled Benghazi and other cities are accused of assaulting and killing dozens of them, and perpetrators could be prosecuted for war crimes.
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.