BENGHAZI - More than 400 people have gone missing in east Libya since the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi began six weeks ago, many feared killed or captured by government forces, human rights officials say.
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Relatives have stuck posters on the walls of hospital lobbies with photos of missing young men and telephone numbers to call with any information.
Ahmed Mahdy Hussein, unheard from since Feb. 20, was one of the names listed at Al Jala hospital in Benghazi. Saleh Ukel Hussein, born in 1976, was another, missing since the same date.
More than 120 posters adorned the walls and entrance gate of the hospital. At least four showed men in military uniform.
Human rights workers say the numbers also include four Libyan doctors and three journalists. But most are unemployed young men who flocked to the rebel volunteer army as fighters or supporters.
Others have been reported as seized by Gaddafi's security forces.
At the Libyan Red Crescent office in Benghazi, tracing coordinator Omar Budabous and his team of about 10 volunteers have been compiling lists, interviewing relatives and visiting hospitals in the city and in Ajdabiyah, a town to the south that has changed hands a few times in the conflict.
"People come here every day to make a report," he told Reuters.
He listed 353 missing from Benghazi and its outskirts, 17 from Ajdabiyah, 21 from Al-Bayda, a town to the northeast, and 22 from Tikra village.
"Most are civilians. Some went to the frontline with the rebels and there's been no news. Some have been captured," he said.
The insurrection against Gaddafi's 41-year rule started in Benghazi in mid-February with street protests that his security forces tried to repress.
It quickly developed into an armed conflict, with an untrained, undisciplined volunteer army, backed by allied air strikes, fighting Gaddafi's forces up and down the coastal highway through the northern desert.
MOST UNEMPLOYED, YOUNG MEN
Budabous said the missing included students and workers who had joined the rebel ranks or supported them, but most were unemployed, indicating the frustration driving the uprising.
"Especially young people, so many young boys," he said.
Most had not been heard from since the first two weeks of the conflict.
Problems with the mobile phone network, which has been partially disabled by the Libyan government, made making contact difficult although it also held out the hope that they had just been unable to reach families, he said.
But some families had received calls from Gaddafi soldiers on the cell phones of their missing menfolk, saying they were holding them in prison. The callers often used foul and abusive language and asked them for their address, he said.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch who is now in east Libya, said some of the missing were last seen in government hands.
"Given the lack of information and Gaddafi's record with torture and killings, the families of these people fear the worst, he said in a statement. "The retreating government forces may have taken their captives with them, both fighters and civilians."
Human Rights Watch has been working with the Red Crescent -- the Muslim world's partner to the International Committee of the Red Cross -- to investigate the disappearances.
It documented a case in which at least 14 people, including a prominent doctor and an ambulance driver, have been missing since March 19. A nurse with the group was killed.
Witnesses last saw them in government custody.
Doctor Ali al-Barg, 45, head of the emergency ward at Benghazi's Hawari hospital, left the city in an ambulance on March 18 to look for casualties along the Benghazi-Ajdabiyah road, Human Rights Watch said.
Two staff members at the medical clinic in Giminis, 30 km south of
Benghazi, told investigators they saw al-Barg and the driver Sami
al-Muzawi tied up next to a military truck and a shot-up ambulance
outside Giminis, along with 12 other detainees.
Al-Barg, still wearing his medical scrubs, had bruises on his face. They
were guarded by three Gaddafi soldiers, who told the Giminis staffers
The detainees have not been seen since.
Budabous said only 15 cases had been happily resolved with the return of the missing people.
Meanwhile his team is using three satellite phones, acting as a kind of
call center to try to trace people. He is also visiting hospital morgues
trying to match photos to bodies.
He expected the list to grow longer as the war rages on.