* Video footage shows headstones kicked over in Benghazi
* Libya's leadership issues apology
* Attackers in video describe buried servicemen as "dogs"
* British minister calls attack "absolutely appalling" (Adds quotes in
By Christian Lowe and Ali Shuaib
TRIPOLI, March 4 (Reuters) - Libya's leadership has apologised after armed
men smashed the graves of British and Italian soldiers killed during World
War Two, in an act of vandalism that bore the hallmarks of radical
Amateur video footage of the attack, posted on social networking site
Facebook, showed men casually kicking over headstones in a war cemetery and
using sledge hammers to smash a metal and stone cross.
One man can be heard saying: "This is a grave of a Christian" as he uprooted
a headstone from the ground. Another voice says of those buried in the
cemetery: "These are dogs."
The attack happened in the eastern city of Benghazi, near where British and
Commonwealth troops fought heavy battles against German and Italian forces
during the 1939-45 war.
The National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya's interim leadership since
last year's uprising forced out Muammar Gaddafi, said it would pursue those
"The NTC apologises for the incident with the foreign graves, especially the
British and Italian graves," the council said in a statement. "This action
is not in keeping with Islam."
"The NTC will confront this matter and, in line with Libyan law, will pursue
those people who committed this act. This action does not reflect Libyan
public opinion because Islam calls for respect for other religions."
The NTC has close ties with Western countries after a NATO bombing campaign
helped it to oust Gaddafi, and most ordinary Libyans feel no animosity
towards the West.
However, a minority of hardline Islamists, who are opposed to any non-Muslim
presence and in some cases have formed into heavily-armed militias, have
gained ground since Gaddafi's 42-year rule ended last August. The government
in Tripoli has struggled to assert its authority over these groups.
British Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne said: "It was an absolutely
appalling story and people will be shocked by the photos."
But he told Sky News television: "I wouldn't want people to think that this
is somehow a demonstration of ingratitude by the government of Libya, that
is not the case."
More than 200 headstones in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery
in Benghazi were damaged as was the Cross of Remembrance, the British
Foreign Office said in a statement.
About a quarter of the headstones in the Benghazi Military Cemetery were
also attacked on Feb. 24 and 26.
Benghazi residents who spoke to Reuters on Sunday expressed disgust at the
"No one can deny that Britain, France, Germany and all the world sided with
us in our suffering," during last year's conflict, said one man, Muftah Abu
Another resident, Imad Mohammed, said: "This World War Two cemetery was
attacked by extremists and this is wrong ... Those dead people do not have
The footage posted on Facebook showed about two dozen men in a cemetery in
daylight. Several carried Kalashnikov automatic rifles and were wearing the
mismatched camouflage uniforms commonly seen on militia members.
In an unhurried and systematic way, they kicked over neatly-arranged rows of
headstones. "We will start with this and then carry on," says one voice on
Another group had placed a ladder against the large stone and metal cross
overlooking the cemetery and was smashing it with hammers. Several onlookers
milled around the cemetery but no one was seen on the footage trying to
At one point, a voice on the recording says: "Come and see the inscription
on this ... There is Hebrew writing on it."
In a statement on its website, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said
it would restore the graves "to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those
commemorated at Benghazi."
It said, though, that it would need to be sure it was safe to carry out the
repairs, and in the meantime temporary markers would be erected over the
The popular British newspaper the Mail on Sunday said in an editorial: "All
this would have been serious and sad enough if it had happened anywhere in
the world. But it took place in Benghazi, headquarters of the Libyan
revolution, which was helped to victory by British arms and British
courage." (Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby in London and Ahmad Noman in
Benghazi; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Sun Mar 04 2012 - 16:59:19 EST