From Recruitment Camps in the Sahara, Libya’s Mercenaries Emerge

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Very early on in the course of the uprising in Libya, an iconic image appeared: that of spent ammunition casings. This has been a revolution of chaos and attrition, with anti-government protesters pitted against a repressive and volatile state, one, which at times has seemed on the brink of collapse and, in other moments, appeared steely grim in its will to persevere.

For those following Libyan expatriates on Twitter, the picture of what’s happening on the ground in the country is both exhilarating and terrifying. On one hand, Libya, city by city, is falling to the forces of rebellion, as if it was a realm subject to some anachronistic feudal revolt. On the other hand, TV reports make us all the more aware of the Gaddafi regime’s desperate efforts to resist this insurrection. An untold number of non-Libyan fighters, almost certainly mercenaries or soldiers for hire, have been flown into the country to neutralize the opposition. Reports last week suggested mercenaries from West Africa and certain sub-Saharan states — the majority from former French colonies — participated in the brutal slaughter of protesters in the restive Libyan city of Benghazi. Before the opposition seized control of the city and other major centers in the country’s east in recent days, mercenaries had gunned down protesters with sniper rifles and perhaps even helicopters macabrely equipped with anti-aircraft guns. Here is footage of the results of such a crackdown, and we warn you: this is very graphic.

But who are these mercenaries? TIME’s Cairo correspondent, Abigail Hauslohner, who is now on the ground in eastern — or, shall we say, “liberated” — Libya, managed to stumble across an encampment of mercenaries detained by the opposition. They seem to be from the impoverished nations of Niger and Chad, and few are willing to talk. As we struggle to understand who would still try to defend the crumbling Gaddafi regime, I put together a piece on the recent history of mercenaries in the Middle East. For decades, foreign officers have sculpted the security arrangements of many repressive regimes in the region. In such a climate, how could you fault soldiers of fortune for opting for an employer who is perhaps not the most savory of characters.

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