TRIPOLI Libya's leadership has apologised after armed men smashed the graves of British and Italian soldiers killed during World War Two, in an act of vandalism that bore the hallmarks of radical Islamists.
Amateur video footage of the attack, posted on social networking site Facebook, showed men casually kicking over headstones in a war cemetery and using sledge hammers to smash a metal and stone cross.
One man can be heard saying: "This is a grave of a Christian" as he uprooted a headstone from the ground. Another voice says of those buried in the cemetery: "These are dogs."
The attack happened in the eastern city of Benghazi, near where British and Commonwealth troops fought heavy battles against German and Italian forces during the 1939-45 war.
The National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya's interim leadership since last year's uprising forced out Muammar Gaddafi, said it would pursue those responsible.
"The NTC apologises for the incident with the foreign graves, especially the British and Italian graves," the council said in a statement. "This action is not in keeping with Islam."
"The NTC will confront this matter and, in line with Libyan law, will pursue those people who committed this act. This action does not reflect Libyan public opinion because Islam calls for respect for other religions."
The NTC has close ties with Western countries after a NATO bombing campaign helped it to oust Gaddafi, and most ordinary Libyans feel no animosity towards the West.
However, a minority of hardline Islamists, who are opposed to any non-Muslim presence and in some cases have formed into heavily-armed militias, have gained ground since Gaddafi's 42-year rule ended last August. The government in Tripoli has struggled to assert its authority over these groups.
British Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne said: "It was an absolutely appalling story and people will be shocked by the photos."
But he told Sky News television: "I wouldn't want people to think that this is somehow a demonstration of ingratitude by the government of Libya, that is not the case."
More than 200 headstones in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Benghazi were damaged as was the Cross of Remembrance, the British Foreign Office said in a statement.
About a quarter of the headstones in the Benghazi Military Cemetery were also attacked on February 24 and 26.
Benghazi residents who spoke to Reuters on Sunday expressed disgust at the attack.
"No one can deny that Britain, France, Germany and all the world sided with us in our suffering," during last year's conflict, said one man, Muftah Abu Azzah.
Another resident, Imad Mohammed, said: "This World War Two cemetery was attacked by extremists and this is wrong ... Those dead people do not have any guilt."
The footage posted on Facebook showed about two dozen men in a cemetery in daylight. Several carried Kalashnikov automatic rifles and were wearing the mismatched camouflage uniforms commonly seen on militia members.
In an unhurried and systematic way, they kicked over neatly-arranged rows of headstones. "We will start with this and then carry on," says one voice on the recording.
Another group had placed a ladder against the large stone and metal cross overlooking the cemetery and was smashing it with hammers. Several onlookers milled around the cemetery but no one was seen on the footage trying to intervene.
At one point, a voice on the recording says: "Come and see the inscription on this ... There is Hebrew writing on it."
In a statement on its website, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission said it would restore the graves "to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those commemorated at Benghazi."
It said, though, that it would need to be sure it was safe to carry out the repairs, and in the meantime temporary markers would be erected over the graves.
The popular British newspaper the Mail on Sunday said in an editorial: "All this would have been serious and sad enough if it had happened anywhere in the world. But it took place in Benghazi, headquarters of the Libyan revolution, which was helped to victory by British arms and British courage."