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Benghazi dangers frighten diplomats

| Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

BENGHAZI, Libya — It is exceedingly easy to get away with murder here.

Just ask any Libyan: Who killed more than 50 police officers, soldiers and judges here and in the eastern city of Darna this year?

Who lit the fire that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and another American at the U.S. diplomatic mission here just over a year ago? Who launched the mortar rounds that killed two CIA contractors that same night?

Or, for that matter, who bears responsibility for the 2011 torture and killing of Abdul Fattah Younis, the Gaddafi-era military commander who defected to lead the rebels?

“Do you live on Mars?” asked Hashem Bishr, the hard-line Salafist leader of a powerful Tripoli militia.

To understand Libya's unsolved murder mysteries, understand this, Bishr said: “It's just not a good time.”

What he meant is that there are people who know the answers — they're just not willing to share the information.

Nor is the fragile, post-revolution government prepared to mete out justice, many Libyans and rights groups say.

Tripoli's weak authorities have promised to investigate the killings. “But until now, there is nobody in detention. Nobody has been charged. And according to our knowledge, no one is being investigated,” said Hanan Salah, a Libya researcher for Human Rights Watch. The government, she said, lacks the technical capacity to do so.

But there is also a powerful element of fear.

More than a year after the deadly attack on the U.S. mission here, the dilapidated port city that was the birthplace of Libya's 2011 revolution has become the epicenter of a shadowy campaign of assassinations and bombings. Most of the killings have targeted police and army personnel, along with a handful of judges and a political activist.

“The pale truth is that this is a bleeding city — a city that has a lot of losses every day,” said Fathallah Bin Ali, a Benghazi businessman who allies himself with the federalists, a faction in eastern Libya that is holding the region's oil infrastructure hostage to extract more control from the government.

In recent months, mysterious early morning bombings have targeted two courts, a wedding hall and a popular cafe. No one was killed. But the intent, residents say, was intimidation.

Mohamed Bargathi said he has no desire to mend the facade of his once-bustling cafe, the Rotana, which was shattered last month by a homemade bomb in a bag left on the front steps.

“I'm afraid they'll just bomb it again,” he said.

Depending on whom you ask, just about every armed group around here is guilty of killings, theft and human rights abuses.

Since Stevens' death, U.S. officials, along with many other Western diplomats, no longer venture to Benghazi because the risks are simply too high.

Hauslohner is Cairo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

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