Business, Economics and Jobs

Are African troops backing Gaddafi?


Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, left, with one of his female bodyguards by his side. There is considerable speculation that Gaddafi is relying upon African mercenary soldiers to prop up his embattled regime.


Alexander Nemenov

We've all heard about Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's black female bodyguards.

But now there are numerous reports that African troops are bolstering Libya's embattled leader and that they are firing at protesters on the streets and from helicopters.

Libya’s ambassador to India, who resigned following a crackdown on protests, said last week that African mercenaries were being used by Gaddafi and their ruthlessness in shooting unarmed protesters prompted some Libyan army soldiers to switch sides to the opposition.

"The mercenaries are from Africa, and speak French and other languages," said former ambassador to India Ali al-Essawi to Reuters. He said his information came from sources within the OPEC-member country. "They (troops) are Libyans and they cannot see foreigners killing Libyans so they moved beside the people," said Essawi.

"People say they are black Africans and they don't speak Arabic. They are doing terrible things, going to houses and killing women and children," charged Essawi, in a separate interview with Al Jazeera.

Witness accounts from Libya also suggest that foreign troops are supporting Gaddafi. They say that French speaking troops from Chad, Tunisia and Morocco have been firing on protesters. There are also reports that Ethiopian and Somali troops are supporting Gaddafi in Tripoli.

Zimbabwean troops have been sent to support Gaddafi, according to the Zimbabwe Mail. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and Gaddafi have been close allies for many years.

A chartered Russian aircraft flew into Harare on Monday evening and left for Libya last week carrying troops from Mugabe's crack Commando Unit, according to reports by the Zimdiaspora.

Mugabe's Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa was questioned about this in parliament last week. Mnangagwa would neither confirm or deny the reports that Zimbabwe troops have been sent to Libya. He referred the question to the Foreign Affairs ministry. Later, on Feb. 25, Mnangagwa gave a typically elliptical answer, saying there was no provision in the Zimbabwe Defence Act, to send soldiers to support a foreign leader. However Zimbabweans quickly pointed out that Zimbabwe sent thousands of soldiers to support the Kabila government in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1999.

Over the years, Gaddafi has been one of Robert Mugabe's most vocal political allies in African Summits and is believed to have contributed millions of dollars towards the Zimbabwean president's re-election campaigns.

The two leaders have signed dozens of bilateral agreements which contributed millions of dollars worth of Libyan oil supplies.

Gaddafi once visited Zimbabwe, driving down from the Zambian capital, Lusaka, in a motorcade packed with female Nubian bodyguards. During his visit, the Libyan dictator urged Zimbabwe's Asian Muslims to wage a jihad against Zimbabwe's small white population.

In January the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which is in a coalition government with Mugabe's Zanu-PF, warned the Libyan embassy in Zimbabwe against continued funding of Zanu-PF and said it was also incensed that the party had embarked on a massive vote buying campaign using food handouts and farming inputs. The Morgan Tsvangirai led MDC said in statements it had been dismayed to learn that the Libyan embassy had donated nine tractors and other farming implements at a function in the town of Chegutu.

The friendship between Mugabe and Gaddafi is so strong that Zimbabwe is often mentioned as a place where Gaddafi might find exile. Zimbabwe is already hosting former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

But it is still not certain that Zimbabwean or other African troops are actually supporting Gaddafi.

Libya has a significant black population, especially in southern Libya, and they could be soldiers in the regular army that protesters mistake for foreign mercenaries. There are Chadians who have sided with Gaddafi in past conflicts with Chad, and who were rewarded with Libyan citizenship, houses and jobs.

As events unfold in Libya, it will be fascinating to see if Gaddafi has actually resorted to using African mercenaries to prop up his regime.