The Associated Press reported on Friday that rebel forces and sympathetic Libyan civilians have been rounding up sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans in Tripoli, accusing them of serving as “mercenaries” for the Gaddafi regime:

Virtually all of the detainees say they are innocent migrant workers, and in most cases there is no evidence that they are lying. But that is not stopping the rebels from placing the men in facilities like the Gate of the Sea sports club, where about 200 detainees — all black — clustered on a soccer field this week, bunching against a high wall to avoid the scorching sun.

The report quotes a prison director who acknowledges that many of the detainees are likely stranded migrant workers, but insists that “a big percentage” had been “fighting against our people.” The report adds that while there is little “credible” evidence of widespread violence against the prisoners (if racially motivated detention cannot be said already to constitute “violence”), Amnesty International and the African Union have warned that “there is potential for serious abuse.”

Racially motivated violence, which the United Nations had warned could occur prior to the NATO intervention, has marked a seedy and under-reported underbelly of an uprising that has otherwise professed democratic aspirations.

Black residents of Libya, “mercenaries” or otherwise, might be fairly characterized as victims of the Gaddafi legacy in their own right, caught up in a cynical ploy by a paranoid regime to turn the country’s residents against one another. More immediately, however, they are victims of the revolutionaries on whose behalf NATO has been dropping bombs for months. And more importantly, most are the “civilians” NATO’s mandate compels it to protect, regardless of their stripe. No word on whether to expect new strikes on Tripoli if the situation deteriorates.

With parallel reports of NATO allies working to outmaneuver one another to secure oil contracts in a new Free Libya, the potential spoils of regime change – however well the change might have been deserved – have once more overshadowed the proclamation of a “responsibility to protect.”

Life lesson for liberal hawks: “humanitarian” bombing campaigns are destined to disappoint.

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