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Libya counts its martyrs, but the bodies don't add up

First published 25th Oct 2011

This New York Times article, comparing claims by the NTC about the number of casualties of the war in Libya with the current verifiable death toll, draws attention to the tendency of political leaders in conflict to issue round-number casualty totals, which are uncorroborated by any verifiable data.

Officially, according to Libya’s new leaders, their martyrs in the struggle against the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi should number 30,000 to 50,000, not even counting their enemies who have fallen.

Yet in the country’s morgues, the war dead registered from both sides in each area so far are mostly in the hundreds, not the thousands. And those who are still missing total as few as 1,000, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross

The article, by Rod Norland, notes that though the death toll from the conflict in Libya is "horrendous", and mass graves of tens of bodies are still being found, the verifiable level of losses does not appear to fit with 

the former rebels’ narrative of a David-and-Goliath struggle against a bloodthirsty regime that slaughtered tens of thousands of the helpless and the innocent

The author investigates the evidence at morgues, from the Red Cross and from NGOs such as Human Rights Watch to attempt to assess the truth behind and basis of the rebels' numbers, as well as the politics around the figures, noting that the death toll has become

a politically delicate issue, with some new government officials refusing to release hard statistics on casualties and human rights groups cautious about taking a definitive position.