Libya warlord accused of using child soldiers to fight forces of UN-backed government

Alex Crawford, special correspondent in Tripoli

The UN-backed Libyan government is under siege from rebels led by General Khalifa Heftar.

As the rebels fight to take Libya's capital, Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford meets men and others believed to be youths who are being detained.

They are accused of fighting against forces that back the internationally-recognised administration.

The prisoners came walking out in single file, most with no shoes on their feet, some with their head bowed. These are some of the men, their captors claim, who were preparing to fight to take over the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

"You can talk to whoever you want," Lieutenant Abdul Baset Shiva says to us. He is part of the Zawiya Security Directorate who captured the men on the outskirts of Zawiya, some 30 miles away from the city.

Several of the guards and police tell us the fighters came armed, in a convoy of vehicles and pickup trucks. They point out some of the vehicles parked in the yard.

There are more than a hundred prisoners brought out to us and about 10 say they are younger than 18 years old.

The UN-recognised government in Tripoli has been insisting the advancing forces are using children to help fight their battles and there has been much circulating on social media appearing to emphasise this, with stills of some of the boys holding up their birth years: 2002; 2003 and 2004.

Like so many conflicts, this is as much a propaganda war as a military one - and Twitter, Facebook and other websites are all playing their part.

We are given permission to interview whoever agrees to be interviewed. Their guards are standing nearby but there is no attempt to overtly influence what they're saying and many appear to be relaxed around their captors.

The guards call out their names and provide them with telephones so they can contact their relatives. Some of them do refuse to talk to us but others agree.

They all seem to have similar stories: they were keen to earn money because they were struggling. They had only recently joined the Heftar forces - which he calls the Libyan National Army (LNA) - a month or two earlier. And most curiously of all, they insist they were told they were only going on "parade" in the capital.

"We don't want this," one says to us. "We just want to go home."

Another tells us: "We just want to go home. It was all about the money, to be honest."

The internationally-recognised administration in Tripoli headed by Fayyaz al-Serraj has been calling on the United Nations to exert its influence and stop the fighting. They say there cannot be any peace negotiations until Khalifa Heftar withdraws his fighters from the perimeter of Tripoli.

The military strongman, who was a general under the country's former dictator Colonel Gaddafi, has said he is cleansing the city of terrorists who are running different fiefdoms inside it - a claim angrily disputed by the Government of National Accord (GNA).

"Where are the terrorists?" Mr Al-Serraj told Sky News in his first interview since Mr Heftar mounted his attack on the capital. "Are these not crimes against humanity?"

Tension and angry is building up inside the capital.

Night-time rocket attacks on residential areas killing, wounding and terrifying civilians have infuriated crowds. In the fog of propaganda traffic, there are those outside the capital blaming the GNA and different militia groups of orchestrating the rocket attacks to garner sympathy with the international community and prompt intervention.

It's a claim which few inside Tripoli believe and it's given short shrift.

But the civilian anger against the lack of action by the international community is real and raw.

Thousands of families have been forced to flee their homes to get out of the line of with city front lines constantly shifting.

There's a real fear about what's going to happen here. And nothing seems to be off limits.

A junior school has been destroyed where pupils gathered for their morning assembly - there appears to be no military target nearby.

"Where is the international community?" one man shouts at us. "Is this democracy? Is this freedom?"

He is among the hoards of people who've fled the fighting and who are now homeless. He is embarrassed at having to line up for food and water donations. Many of the crowd appear to feel the same way and urge us not to film them.

One of the fighters who has joined the groups trying to hold back Mr Heftar's forces tells us: "The international community started this in 2011. They have to finish it now."