Libya risks its future by vengeful attacks

For all the good intentions and careful plans of Libya's National Transitional Council, things are starting to go wrong on the ground.

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When rebels were celebrating their victory in Sirte last week, an image played on television foreshadowed a potentially violent split facing the "liberated" nation. A Qaddafi loyalist was lashed to the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pick-up truck. Dazed from the fighting, he was pleading for mercy.

We can only guess at this man's fate, although it's reasonable to assume that mercy played no part in it. On Monday, Human Rights Watch reported that it had discovered the corpses of 53 pro-Qaddafi fighters in a Sirte hotel. Some had their hands bound behind their backs when they were shot.

Factional rivalries were always below the surface as ragtag Libyan militants fought to depose Qaddafi's regime. But for months, the National Transitional Council - from its base in the eastern city of Benghazi - promised that when Muammar Qaddafi was gone, rebel fighters would coalesce under their leadership.

Today, that promise seems more than a little hollow.

After four decades of violent repression and dictatorial rule, Libyans can be excused for an excess of emotion. But violence - including cold-blooded murder - is not how Libya will break from its troubled past.

The NTC has sounded the right notes: elections within eight months, and frequent calls for reconciliation and unity. These words have brought praise from the foreign governments that contributed to Qaddafi's fall with air support and fire power.

As soon as the tide turned on the road from Benghazi to Tripoli, we warned in these pages of the possibility of war crimes, which could worsen Libya's historic rivalries. Those fears are now being realised. As The National reported yesterday, Tripoli remains "a patchwork of armed fiefdoms" battling "for the spoils of war". Similar power struggles are certain to emerge elsewhere; fighters from Misurata, with tribal loyalties of their own, have proven especially unwilling to cede control.

So far Nato's post-war strategy has been to leave Libya to Libyans. By the end of this month, the foreign military campaign will come to an end. Quick to declare victory after Qaddafi's death, all sides need to recognise that a stable Libya is still far from assured.

The future depends on Libyans themselves. But amid signs that the NTC is not in full control, every party must urge restraint in this unsettled time.