MISURATA // The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants yesterday for Muammar Qaddafi, his son Saif Al Islam and his intelligence chief for crimes against humanity.
Judges at The Hague in The Netherlands said the three men were wanted for orchestrating the killing, injuring, arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of civilians during the first 12 days of an uprising to topple Colonel Qaddafi from power, and trying to cover up their crimes.
In Freedom Square in Misurata, Libya yesterday the ICC decision was met with cheers, gunfire and singing as thousands gathered to hear the announcement. Red, green and black - the colours of the pre-Qaddafi Libyan flag - adorned faces, signs, cars and flags as far as the eye could see. Children clapped and sang. Men fired guns.
"We are so happy today," said Mohammed Abdul Rackman, 55, as he celebrated with his children. "For 40 years this man has sucked our blood. Everything is changing now."
The warrants turn Colonel Qaddafi, his son and the regime's intelligence chief, Abdullah Al Sanoussi, into internationally wanted men, potentially complicating efforts to mediate an end to more than four months of intense fighting in Libya. While he remains in power it is unlikely Colonel Qaddafi would ever face arrest; if deposed, he would be at greater risk.
The presiding judge, Sanji Monageng of Botswana, said yesterday there were "reasonable grounds to believe" Colonel Qaddafi and his son were both "criminally responsible as indirect co-perpetrators" for the murder and persecution of civilians.
She called Colonel Qaddafi the "undisputed leader of Libya" who had "absolute, ultimate and unquestioned control" over his country's military and security forces.
Libyan officials rejected the court's authority even before the decision was read out in a courtroom in The Hague. They said the court had unfairly targeted Africans while ignoring what they called crimes committed by Nato in Afghanistan, Iraq "and in Libya now".
"The ICC has no legitimacy whatsoever. We will not deal with it," the government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said on Sunday.
Ms Monageng said evidence showed that after uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Colonel Qaddafi and his inner circle plotted a "state policy … aimed at deterring and quelling by any means - including by the use of lethal force - the demonstrations by civilians against the regime".
She said Colonel Qaddafi's security forces probably "killed and injured as well as arrested and imprisoned hundreds of civilians".
In Misurata yesterday, Salim Mohammed described the early days of the uprising. He was one of hundreds trapped in his home near Tripoli Street when Colonel Qaddafi's men moved into Misurata on March 19.
For eight days, he and two of his sons, aged 15 and 18, hid in their home as snipers from a nearby rooftop picked off civilians who entered the street.
One man hid behind a tree for more than 24 hours, Mr Mohammed said. When the man tried to run he was shot in the back and bled to death by the roadside.
An old man had his throat cut by Colonel Qaddafi's men as Mr Mohammed and his sons looked on helplessly from their hiding place.
Short on supplies and in constant danger from rockets and gunfire, Mr Mohammed tried to disguise himself as a Qaddafi loyalist and walk his sons to safety.
The three, including his youngest son, who suffers from deformities, were captured, beaten and kicked in the street. They were taken to a produce market, which had been converted into a military base, where they were held captive with several other men in a toilet block and beaten mercilessly for four days.
"They called us the rats of Misurata," he said. Finally, one soldier took pity on the disabled boy and helped them to escape.
The rebel spokesman in Misurata, Ibrahim Beatelmal, said among the war crimes committed against the people of Misurata were the use of indiscriminate weapons within civilian areas such as cluster bombs, mortars and rockets that continue to be fired randomly into the city, the wilful destruction of civilian property, and the rape and abuse of women and children.
Of the thousands of men such as Mr Mohammed and his sons who were captured and tortured, at least 600 remain missing, Mr Beatelmal said.
At The Hague, prosecutors said the three men should be arrested quickly "to prevent them covering up ongoing crimes and committing new crimes".
"This is the only way to protect civilians in Libya," said the statement from the office of the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
In New York, the UN's head of political issues, Lynn Pascoe, told the 15-nation Security Council that rebels were gaining ground against Colonel Qaddafi's forces, with fighting around Bir al Ghanam, about 80km from Tripoli.
"While we do not have a detailed understanding of the military situation, it is clear that the initiative, although halting, is now with the opposition forces supported at times with Nato air power," said Mr Pascoe, the undersecretary general for political affairs.
Council members met yesterday after the ICC issued its warrants and as Nato forces continued pounding Colonel Qaddafi's forces. Libyan government officials say air strikes are claiming civilian lives, including 15 deaths in the city of Brega.
"We are concerned about all reports of civilian casualties, whether resulting from the regime's violence which, of course, has been responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties, or from military actions by opposition forces or Nato," Mr Pascoe said.
More than 1.1 million people have fled across Libya's borders with Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Algeria, Chad and Sudan since anti-Qaddafi protests began.
Many risk death by "sailing in dangerous conditions towards Europe", Mr Pascoe said.
The UN's envoy to Libya, Abdul Elah Al Khatib, has met officials from the Libyan government and the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council over the "need to end hostilities", strike a peace deal and allow in much-needed aid supplies, Mr Pascoe said.
In Tripoli, two loud explosions shook the area near Colonel Qaddafi's compound yesterday. Nato jets were heard over the Libyan capital minutes after the blasts as sirens from emergency vehicles blared in the streets. Smoke rose from the area near Colonel Qaddafi's Bab Al Aziziya complex, where Libyans hold daily rallies in support of the government. Colonel Qaddafi is not believed to be staying in the compound.
* James Reinl reported from the United Nations. With additional reporting by the Associated Press