BENGHAZI, Libya – A Libyan woman who claimed she was gang-raped by Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops was deported from Qatar where she sought refuge, and is now in Benghazi, said a U.N. official on Thursday.
Her sudden expulsion cast light again on one of the most widely covered incidents of alleged abuses by Qaddafi's forces, as NATO continued its relentless nightly bombing raids on Libyan military and security bases, backing rebels who are trying to unseat Qaddafi after a four-decade dictatorship.
Early Friday, a series of six NATO strikes hit targets close to the Libyan capital. The strikes targeted a police station and a military base outside of Tripoli in the areas of Hera and Aziziya, said a government official speaking on customary condition of anonymity. He said it was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.
The U.S. government on Thursday expressed concern for the safety of the Libyan woman, Imad al-Obeidi.
In March, al-Obeidi rushed into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel where all foreign correspondents are forced to stay while covering the part of Libya under Qaddafi's control, and shouted out her story of being stopped at a a checkpoint, dragged away and gang-raped by soldiers.
As she spoke emotionally, and as photographers and reporters recorded her words, government minders, whose job is to escort reporters around the area, jumped her and dragged her away.
She disappeared for several days, then turned up in Tunisia and later Qatar. She was heard from little until Thursday, when she was suddenly expelled from Qatar and ended up in Benghazi, the Libyan rebels' de facto capital. No explanation was forthcoming from Qatar.
Rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said al-Obeidi arrived in Benghazi by plane. "She's welcome to stay, this is her country," el-Gallal told The Associated Press.
The U.N. Refugee Agency's Sybella Wilkes said al-Obeidi should have been allowed to stay in Qatar, and her deportation runs contrary to international law.
Al-Obeidi "is a recognized refugee, and we don't consider there is any good reason for her deportation," Wilkes told the Associated Press.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was "monitoring the situation" and working to ensure al-Obeidi's safety.
"We're concerned for her safety, given all that's happened to her. And we're going to work to make sure that she's kept safe, first and foremost, and that she finds appropriate asylum," Toner told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Libyan authorities have alternately labeled al-Obeidi a drunk, a prostitute and a thief.
Al-Obeidi has maintained that she was targeted by Qaddafi's troops because she is from Benghazi, the rebel stronghold.
Al-Obeidi's rape claim could not be independently verified. The Associated Press identifies only rape victims who volunteer their names.
Human rights violations are one aspect of the rebels' complaints against the Qaddafi regime. This week a report by a U.N. body said it found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Qaddafi's government, and also charged that the rebels have committed abuses.
The conflict in Libya is nearly four months along, but the situation on the ground appears mostly stalemated. NATO airstrikes have kept the outgunned rebels from being overrun, but the rebels have been unable to mount an effective offensive against Qaddafi's better equipped armed forces.
Qaddafi's regime has been slowly crumbling from within. A significant number of army officers and several Cabinet ministers have defected, and most have expressed support for the opposition, but Qaddafi's hold on power shows little sign of loosening.
NATO warplanes bomb targets in Tripoli, including Qaddafi's sprawling Bab al-Aziziya residential and command compound, on a nightly basis.
Qaddafi has been seen in public rarely and heard even less frequently since a NATO airstrike on his compound killed one of his sons on April 30. Questions are arising about the physical and mental state of the 69-year-old dictator, who has ruled Libya since 1969.
Rebels have turned down initiatives calling for cease-fires, insisting that Qaddafi and his sons must relinquish power and leave the country.