TRIPOLI, Libya — A bone wrapped with rope and skull fragments scattered over a cactus-covered desert field are grim testament to a massacre of more than 1,200 inmates killed by Moammar Gadhafi's regime in a 1996 prison massacre.
Libyan officials announced Sunday they have found the site of a mass grave believed to hold the remains of the victims after capturing former security guards who revealed its location as well as receiving witness accounts.
Excavation has not begun in the field outside the white walls of the notorious Abu Salim prison, although several bone fragments and pieces of clothing already have been found in the top soil. Soldiers and relatives sifted through the sand during a visit Sunday, displaying a pair of pants and other remains for reporters brought to the site.
A military spokesman and members of a committee tasked with finding mass graves said they were confident the field holds the remains of the prison massacre victims based on information from former regime officials who have been captured in the fight against the authoritarian leader.
"We have discovered the truth about what the Libyan people have been waiting for many years, and it is the bodies and remains of the Abu Salim massacre," a military spokesman for Tripoli, Khalid al-Sherif, said at a news conference.
The find has enormous symbolic importance for Libyans who are seeking justice for more than four decades of repression and alleged crimes at the hands of the regime.
It was a demonstration in the eastern city of Benghazi demanding the release of a prominent lawyer representing the families of slain inmates that sparked the revolution in mid-February. Inspired by the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab world, unrest spread and Gadhafi was forced into hiding after revolutionary forces swept into Tripoli in late August.
The June 26, 1996, killings became a focal point for opposition to Gadhafi who waged fierce crackdowns against any sign of dissent. Most of the inmates were political prisoners, including Islamic clerics and students who had dared to speak against Gadhafi
Ibrahim Abu Shim, a member of the committee looking for mass graves, said investigators believe 1,270 people were buried in the field but the Libyans needed help from the international community to find and identify the remains because they lacked sophisticated equipment needed for DNA testing.
Sami al-Saadi, who said he lost two brothers in the massacre, said it was important to bring closure for relatives after years of not knowing where their loved ones were buried.
He said he had rejoiced when revolutionary forces succeeded in ousting Gadhafi, but the memory of his brothers Mohammed and Adel cast a shadow over the celebrations.
"The people who are responsible of this massacre should be brought before a judge and we can give now sure evidence to all the world about Moammar Ghadafi and how this dictator led this country and its people," he said as he stood in the field with the barbed wire lined walls towering behind him.
He said he was out of the country in 1996 but later spent several years imprisoned himself.
Abu Salim — where for decades Gadhafi had locked up and tortured opponents, or made them disappear — sits empty now after the prisoners were freed as an invading rebel force was sweeping Gadhafi's regime from the capital.
Al-Saadi and other former inmates said they faced torture and inhumane living conditions. Al-Saadi said he was refused medical treatment for a heart condition during his detention.