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Libya fighters find scenes of despair in Surt hospital

An emaciated patient lay unconscious in the abandoned intensive care unit. The heart monitor beside the bed beeped loudly, ringing out across an empty ward damaged by a bomb blast. Outside the battle continued to rage.

Libya’s transitional government seeking to finally seize control of Moammar Kadafi’s hometown captured — at least temporarily — the central hospital in the loyalist city on Sunday. Inside the Ibn Sina Hospital, they found scenes of destruction and human despair.

Injured loyalist soldiers and civilian patients, some barely breathing, lined the corridors. Blood smeared the filthy floors, and bottles of urine lay under the beds.

“The hospital was full of wounded soldiers, and there were not enough doctors. They barely had time to administer standard first aid,” said Muftah Omar, 48, a Surt resident.

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Omar, a civilian, had brought his daughter Selma to the hospital after she was injured in a rocket attack that struck their home. The battle escalating outside, they had remained trapped in their war-scarred residence for 10 days, his daughter untreated.

“There was a long queue for the operation, there is no anesthesiologist. Selma has internal injuries that are infected,” Omar said.

Bulgarian, Polish and Philippine nurses hiding in the hospital basement described the horror of the last two weeks as forces loyal to the toppled longtime leader sought to hold out from transitional government fighters. It was unclear whether the damage at the hospital resulted from attacks by anti-Kadafi fighters, loyalist forces or bombings by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose mission is to protect civilians under fire.

“The bombing was so intense, it smashed the top floor. One week ago it got too bad and no one reported for duty. Kidney dialysis patients were so desperate for treatment that they came to our building behind the hospital to beg the nurses back to work,” said Maria Christina Cruz, 53, from the Philippines.

Injured women hid, terrified, in a small ward in the center of the hospital. A prematurely born baby with a lung infection lay in an incubator.

The hospital had served as a weapons storage area for loyalist soldiers, according to several patients. “Some soldiers roamed with weapons, and kept their arms here. We saw hand grenades in the intensive care unit,” Omar said.

The multi-story building has also been used by loyalist forces to fire on the transitional government fighters.

“We begged and negotiated with them not to attack from here,” Omar said. “Together with the doctors we overpowered them and raised the white surrender flag over the building.”

In storming the hospital, fighters said they captured 50 of Kadafi’s soldiers, many of them from the loyalist town of Tawarga that is now deserted. “They lay in the hospital beds pretending to be injured,” said Osama Swehli, a coordinator in the transitional government’s operations room.

Commanders sought to control pent-up rage and hatred toward the captives. “You dog!” shouted one fighter, throwing a punch at a detainee as he was brought away.

“Libya is free. Say it!” one fighter ordered young male patients. Wide-eyed with fear, they muttered the words.

Fighting continued to rage around the hospital. Walls shuddered from continuous blasts, and, as the sun began to set, loyalist forces began to gain the upper hand. “Leave now! Kadafi’s men are coming!” interim government fighters shouted, jumping into their vehicles and speeding away.

Tracer fire crisscrossed the horizon and flashes of explosions lighted up the sky close to the hospital, with the patients trapped inside, their fate still hanging in the balance.

Sherlock is a special correspondent.


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