A man tries to identify his lost relatives among unearthed bodies suspected to have been killed by Gaddafi's forces in Khums
A man tries to identify his lost relatives among unearthed bodies suspected to have been killed by Gaddafi's forces in Khums

As evidence of illegal killings and violations of human rights by both sides emerge in Libya, the absence of official and updated casualty figures shows many secrets are still to be revealed before the carnage wrought by nine months of civil war is known. 

In August rebel leaders put the death toll at 50,000.

"In Misrata and Zlitan between 15,000 and 17,000 were killed and Jebel Nafusa [the Western Mountains] took a lot of casualties," said Col. Hisham Buhagiar, a rebel commander. "Then there was Ajdabiyah, Brega. Many people were killed there too," he said, referring to towns repeatedly fought over in eastern Libya.

SInce then, there has been fierce fighting for Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and Bani Walid, which was besieged for weeks and finally fell in October with heavy casualties on both sides.

From the very beginning of the Libyan conflict death counts have widely varied, illustrating the chaotic nature of the struggle.

In the first few weeks, when the United Nations estimated that 1,000 Libyans had been killed, the World Health Organization put the estimate at 2,000 and the International Criminal Court closer to 10,000.

Since March, casualty figures have become even more difficult to determine. Non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent and Doctors Without Borders, which usually provide impartial first-hand reports, were banned from the western part of the country throughout the conflict, making it even more difficult to come up with a reliable count.

Estimates of victims mainly came from the two sides, the National Transitional Council and the former Gaddafi government, neither an impartial source.

Throughout the conflict the Gaddafi regime was accused of staging fake funerals or blaming the conflict for deaths that later proved to be unrelated.

Just in February, the ICC estimated the number of dead at 10,000 and wounded at 4,000.

On 2 March, the World Health Organization estimated approximately 2,000 killed but at the same time, the opposition claimed that 6,500 people had died while other conflicting reports pointed to 8,000.

On 8 September, Naji Barakat, the Health Minister of the National Transitional Council, stated that the death toll amounted to 30,000, with half thought to be Gaddafi fighters.

War wounded were estimated as at least 50,000, of which about 20,000 were serious injuries.

These figures have not been independently verified, and the NTC caused controversy by reducing the number of people killed to 25,000 within a month.

The minister said the report had been established based on information provided by hospitals, local officials and former rebel commanders.

While some sources said the number advanced by the transitional government merely covers the number of NTC fighters that have fallen, other claimed war dead registered in morgues indicate far fewer victims.

In the recent months various mass graves have also been found, and in the last few weeks, international organisations have also found dozens of abandoned bodies in various areas.

In total, 13 mass graves were confirmed by the Red Cross but the NTC said it counted a total of up to 20, with Muattez Aneizi, the NTC's humanitarian coordinator, saying in September that more are being found "nearly every day."

The word "mass" however can be misleading as the Red Cross counted only 125 dead from the 13 sites it confirmed.

In the last few weeks however, Human Rights Watch have discovered evidence of atrocities, including up to 53 bodies abandoned in a hotel in Sirte.

Reports also suggested that many rebels died after being captured by Gaddafi forces and held in detention.

A statement issued by the Red Cross in September also demonstrated the level of confusion in Libya and the challenges faced by the authorities in determining who had died from what cause.

In an effort to come up with clearer figures the NTC established a committee charged with coming up with an accurate death count but the Red Cross noted, "The newly established National Council for the Missing quickly turned to us for technical support."

"There have been reports of improvised exhumations, which carry the risk that remains could be mishandled. Important information needed for proper identification of the dead could be lost," the statement said.

Mohammed al-Ghazwi, who works for the Ministry of Health, also said last month, "Every day we find another grave, so I can't give you a specific number."

 "It's very hard to tell the real number because during the Gaddafi time they hid all of them," he added.

Hospital staff have also warned that following the chaotic situation at the height of the conflict some families may have buried their relatives without taking them to the morgues, which were often operating at full capacity.

Others simply told the press they were not allowed to release information on the number of dead and missing, fuelling allegations the transitional leaders tried to cover up the real figures.

Creating consistent and updated data of those missing has also been a struggle. "The numbers you're hearing in the press, they're just basically guesses," said Stefan Schmitt, a forensic anthropologist with Physicians for Human Rights, who travelled to Libya during the conflict. "It's too early to really know."

Meanwhile in June, Gaddafi's Ministry of Health published a report compiling the number of casualties caused by the NATO bombing campaign.

 The document said that during the first 100 days of the NATO strikes 6,121 civilians were killed or injured.

According to the report 668 men were killed and 3,093 injured, 260 women killed and 1318 injured, and 141 children killed and 641 injured.

Of those seriously injured, 655 were still under medical care in hospitals while 4,397 have reportedly been released to their families for outpatient care.

Information provided by the report could not been independently verified and many said the report was just propaganda advanced by the Gaddafi regime.

In August, however, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said he was "deeply concerned by reports of the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties as a result of the conflict in Libya."

With more gruesome revelations emerging on a daily basis since the end of the conflict, it will be essential to establish a clear death toll.

While many have already been buried without being registered in morgues, were left abandoned by their killers, or are still counted as missing, and with the Gaddafi regime accused of killing thousands of prisoners and then hiding their bodies, the number of dead and injured in the bloody civil war could top 100,000.