Rebel guards suspected mercenaries and forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi inside a prison in Benghazi
rebel guards suspected mercenaries and forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi inside a prison in Benghazi March 24, 2011 Reuters

South African President Jacob Zuma yesterday confirmed that with the Libyan rebels and NATO setting Gaddafi's departure as the main condition for a ceasefire and with Gaddafi still refusing to leave, the talks initiated by the African Union did not lead to any breakthrough.

With the conflict on the ground at a stalemate, consequences on both sides are becoming more and more alarming. As the UN warns that shortages of food but also medicines and hospital staff are increasing by the day, the rebel forces are now also being scrutinized as reports of ill treatment of prisoners emerge.

Talking about the situation in Tripoli, Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Libya, told Reuters that some food stocks in areas under Gaddafi's control were likely to last only weeks.

"I don't think there's any famine, malnutrition. But the longer the conflict lasts the more the food stocks supplies are going to be depleted, and it's a matter of weeks before the country reaches a critical situation," Moumtzis said in an interview.

"The food and the medical supplies is a little bit like a time bomb. At the moment it's under control and it's ok. But if this goes on for quite some time, this will become a major issue," he said.

Surely, with the country being ostracised and with access route blockeds, this cannot come as a surprise. While the Gaddafi regime was first condemned for the killing of civilians during peaceful protests, the situation has now changed as the country is locked into a war between armed rebels and the military regime.

On Monday the largest anti-Gaddafi protest since March took place in Tripoli, but one while the protestoers are certainly anti Gaddafi, are they are pro-National Transitional Council?

The rebel administration that controls much of eastern Libya is backed by most Western countries and claims to fight for freedom, democracy and human rights Despite this the NTC has recently been forced to distribute guidelines on how its fighters should treat prisoners of war, after allegations emerged that rebels have engaged in unlawful arrests, mistreated captives and killed sub-Saharan Africans wrongly accused of being mercenaries.

The rebels are currently said to be holding about 300 prisoners, including ten foreigners. However a few months ago they claimed they had captured thousands of mercenaries brought in by Gaddafi, so questions are being raised with regards to what became of them.

While the rebels' spokesperson says they want to make sure that captives are treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions governing the humanitarian treatment of prisoners and other victims of war, he also acknowledged that many of the fighters have no idea what the convention is.

Once again there seems to be a gap between the administrative bureaucratic machine that is slowly erecting itself in Benghazi and the people actively fighting on the front.

Talking about the council's new initiative, Al-Deghali, a member of the council said, "They need guidelines and advice about the rules and procedures they should respect.

"The NTC firmly believes that these prisoners' rights are important, not just as a matter of principle, but that they will help all Libyans to build peace between themselves once the war is over."

She added anyone who broke the rules would be punished, but did not give details as to what the punishment would be.

The guidelines call for prisoners to have access to medical care, to be allowed to freely practice their religion and contact their families, and to receive visits from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Such rules may be hard to realise however as outside of the big cities fighters often do not have access to basic care, it is therefore difficult to imagine how prisoner wellbeing will be a priority.

"When capturing someone, first make sure whether he is a fighter or a civilian. If he is a civilian, let him go," the Arabic-language guidelines state. Fighters can be held for an initial 48 hours and interrogated, before being referred to the justice system if suspected of crimes such as killing civilians.

Al-Deghali confirmed about 150 prisoners were being held in Benghazi, the rebel bastion on Libya's northeast Mediterranean coast, and 150 were in Misrata while adding that the ten foreigners include Chadians, Ghanaians, Algerians and Egyptians.

Amnesty International and the ICRC say they have visited people detained at three or four locations in Benghazi, and both put the number held there at around 200. Civilians suspected of supporting Gadaffi are among the prisoners.

Also, despite a letter of permission from the council's media centre, AP reporters tried unsuccessfully for days to see detainees in Benghazi, but rebel officers refused to them allow access.

Another problem seems to be the growing anti-foreigner feeling among the rebels, who have clearly turned against sub-Saharan Africans, whom they assoicate with foreign mercenaries.

Al-Deghali says the rebels now acknowledge that some people detained as suspected mercenary fighters were just foreign workers swept up in the chaos.

"But we released them after we interrogated them (because) they turned out to be innocent, just expatriates, foreign workers," she said.

As a result, The U.N. Human Rights Council is looking into rights violations in Libya, including extra-judicial killings on both sides. Are Nato and collation forces then supporting a regime that will end up in the Hague?

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague said he is investigating reports of unlawful arrest, mistreatment and killing of "sub-Saharan African civilians wrongly perceived to be mercenaries."

He said angry mobs in rebel-controlled Benghazi and other cities are accused of assaulting and killing dozens of them, and perpetrators could be prosecuted for war crimes.

The situation in Libya is extremely complicated and the gap between how the rebel movement projects itself and how it really operates is increasing by the day. One lesson that should came out of the past of Libya but also more generally of Africa is that one should always be suspicious of political movements that portray themselves as the new liberator. More than 40 years ago that is exactly how a young Libyan captain overthrew the King and told the press "When the people take power it becomes its own government; and at that moment it is I who will find myself in opposition." With the transitional governments of both Libya and Egypt showing disturbing signs of unjustified violence let's hope that the new regime change wave in Africa is different from the one that brought leaders like Gaddafi, Idi Amin or Mugabe into power.