Govt waiting to hear if NZ graves affected by vandalism

By Hayden Donnell, APNZ staff

An image grab taken from YouTube on March 3, 2012 perportedly shows broken headstones at the Benghazi War Cemetery and the Benghazi British Military Cemetery. Photo / AFP
An image grab taken from YouTube on March 3, 2012 perportedly shows broken headstones at the Benghazi War Cemetery and the Benghazi British Military Cemetery. Photo / AFP

The Government has condemned the vandalism of Commonwealth war graves in Libya and is waiting to hear whether the graves of 11 New Zealand soldiers have been desecrated.

Mobs vandalised dozens of graves at the Benghazi War Cemetery and at the Benghazi British Military Cemetery over the weekend.

Video footage shows a mob smashing up headstones and a cross of sacrifice, saying "they are dogs'', reported AFP.

Local reports said the group comprised Salafists angered by the burning of the Koran at a Nato military base in Afghanistan last month.

Prime Minister John Key said it was potentially very distressing given there were 11 New Zealand graves at the site.

"Obviously if there's any damage we want to see those graves restored. It's a shameful act of violence.''

Arts Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson said in a statement the Government joined the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - which runs the cemeteries - in condemning the vandalism.

"We share the Commission's sense of deep shock and sadness at these attacks,''Mr Finlayson said.

"We support the Commission's commitment to restoring the cemetery to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those buried and commemorated there.''

The Commission said temporary markers would be set up at the sites of broken and disfigured headstones ahead of a full restoration.

``Both cemeteries will be restored to a standard befitting the sacrifice of those commemorated at Benghazi.''

According to the Commission's website, the 11 New Zealanders buried in at the Benghazi War Cemetery are: Private Hedley James Boult, Flying Officer Hector Hugh Crawford, Flight Sergeant Lorenzo Richard Feasey, Flying Officer William Lynn Kauter, Lance Corporal Arthur Leslie Milne, Sergeant Maurice Reginald Mutton, Lieutenant Hector Alexander McAulay, Flight Sergeant Mitchell Ridland, Aircraftman First Class Thomas Martin Scott, Pilot Officer William George Duncan Thurston, Private Peter Edgar Alfred Vivienne Wardle.

Earlier, Libyan authorities were "extremely apologetic'' over the desecration of the graves.

Jeremy Browne, from Britain's foreign office, waded in, saying the incidents were "appalling'' and people would be "shocked'' by the footage of the February 24 and 26 attacks.

"The Libyan authorities themselves are shocked too,'' he told Sky News television.

"We have had direct dealings with them. They have been extremely apologetic and made a very strong commitment they will get to the bottom of this happening. They will try and do everything they can to resolve it.''

The Libyan transitional government condemned the attacks and vowed to find the perpetrators.

Some 1214 Commonwealth troops who died in the north African desert battles of World War II are buried at the Benghazi War Cemetery, where around 200 headstones were damaged.

Of the 1051 identified graves, 851 are those of British troops, with others belonging to Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and Indian servicemen.

Around a quarter of the headstones in the nearby Benghazi British Military Cemetery, which does not contain World War graves, were also damaged.

"My understanding it is not just British graves or just Christian graves that have been desecrated, there is wider desecration taking place. The Libyan authorities are keen to work with us on this,'' the minister said.

The British and French air forces last year aided Benghazi-based rebels to oust dictator Moamer Kadhafi from power after his tanks encircled the city.

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