* Prisoners from Sudan, Chad captured in rebel-held west
* Say they believed they were fighting al Qaeda
* Worked as builders, decorators in Libya before war
By Matt Robinson
ZINTAN, Libya, May 24 (Reuters) - African migrants, captured and jailed by the rebels they were fighting in Libya’s Western Mountains, say they were tricked or coerced into the army of Muammar Gaddafi in the belief they faced an al Qaeda invasion.
In rare first-hand accounts from a group branded “mercenaries” by the rebels, five men from Sudan’s western Darfur region and Chad told Reuters how they were working in Libya as builders and decorators when they became embroiled in the conflict unleashed by an uprising to end Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.
They spoke last week at a makeshift jail in a secondary school in the rebel-held town of Zintan. They have had no contact with their families or aid groups, and medical workers in the town say they have had only limited access to the men.
Some of what they said about their treatment in the prison appeared aimed at pleasing their captors. At one point, a guard outside the cell loaded two cartridges into a double-barrelled shotgun and motioned as if to shoot the prisoners.
Mohammed, who said he was a decorator from Darfur, said he enlisted in April in the capital, Tripoli.
“In Tripoli I went to military camp 77. They trained me in how to use weapons and told us we were only going to guard checkpoints. They told us there were Algerians, French and al Qaeda in Maghreb fighting in Libya,” he said.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIB) is al Qaeda’s north African branch.
“We found nothing like that,” he said. “We’ve been tricked. It wasn’t true.”
Libyan government officials deny using mercenaries. They say some of the Libyans in their security forces have dark skin and so have been mistaken for mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa.
A second man in the prison, who declined to be named, said he was from Chad and was working in Zintan as a builder when he was stopped by forces loyal to Gaddafi on his way to Tripoli.
“I had no official papers,” he said. “I was in jail for four months. They told me, ‘If you want to get out, you join us, we give you papers and you work for us’.”
He said he was taken to what he described as a guesthouse, and then sent to the frontline of Libya’s Western Mountains, where rebels have seized most of the high plateau and pro-Gaddafi forces mainly hold the desert plains below.
“That’s when the problems started,” he said. “I saw when they caught my friend,” he said, pointing to another prisoner from Chad, “and I laid down my weapon and gave myself up.”
Ismail, 30, said he left Darfur for Tripoli in March 2009 to work as a decorator. He also said he had joined the army after being told he should fight al Qaeda.
“They didn’t give me any money,” he said. “There was food and cigarettes, but no money.”
“There are many people fighting for Gaddafi from Sudan and Chad. They just believe the lies.”
Like the others, he said he had been treated well since the rebels captured him, and fed three times a day. Asked if he had seen a doctor, he said ‘No’.
Asked if he had been able to contact his family, a wife and two daughters, he said: “My family doesn’t know I’m here. I haven’t spoken to anyone outside the prison.”
The men had been captured in battles near Zintan on April 15 and May 1. They showed no visible signs of having been beaten. One man’s right leg was heavily bandaged and appeared to be swollen.
They all spoke softly and appeared to be nervous.
There were an estimated 1.5 million African migrant workers in Libya before the war. Many were stranded by the conflict, or evacuated to border camps.
Rebels also accuse Gaddafi of importing mercenaries from Mali and Chad to fight a rebellion that has drawn NATO into an air war.
Reuters was shown five prisoners on the second floor of the school. They were sitting on mattresses grouped together, near lockers and upturned desks.
There was metal grating on the outside of the windows, but the room did not appear to be lived in and it was possible the men were actually confined elsewhere in the building.
The rebels appeared uncertain as to how many prisoners the school held, saying they included Black Africans and Libyans.
When pressed, a rebel named Moussa Edhweb, who described himself as a spokesman for the Zintan military council, said there were around 50, but that some had been released.
A foreign medical worker in Zintan said she had heard there were around 30. There was little noise coming from the rest of the building.
“We treat them well. They eat like us, we consider them as us,” Edhweb said in English.
After one of the prisoners had been interviewed, a rebel called Abdullah who said he was in charge approached.
“You see the children Gaddafi likes to kill?” he said, standing over the prisoner. “You hear the rockets? It’s the same for the children here,” he said.
“Don’t choose to fight. When I go to your country, I go for work, not for war.”
The prisoner smiled and replied, “Inshallah (God willing), may God help you.” (Editing by Maria Golovnina)