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The desecration of the graves of 11 New Zealand soldiers at a Libyan war cemetery would be "absolutely heartbreaking'' for the families involved, Prime Minister John Key says.

Mobs vandalised dozens of graves at the Benghazi War Cemetery and at the Benghazi British Military Cemetery at the weekend, and the Ministry of Culture and Heritage today confirmed all 11 New Zealand graves at the cemetery were among those damaged.

Video footage showed a mob smashing up headstones and a cross at the cemetery, calling them "dogs''.

Mr Key said the desecration would be "absolutely heartbreaking'' for the families involved.


"The War Graves Commission have made it quite clear that they will restore the damage to those graves.''

Mr Key said it was difficult to protect the graves because they were open to the public to pay their respects.

New Zealanders travelled around the world to pay their respects to lost loved ones, and they would not want the graves to be in a closed-off environment.

Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson said the act was "most unfortunate''.

"We have people who go and fight for freedom in North Africa and die in the cause of freedom, and this is the way their remains are treated. I think it's disgusting.''

Labour's foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff, who visited the Commonwealth war graves in Tripoli while on a trip to Libya, said the act was "an absolute disgrace''.

War graves were one way to provide support and encouragement for the families of fallen soldiers, he said.

"Anybody that goes in to desecrate war graves of people who died in service of their country is committing a despicable act.''


Mr Goff said he hoped the Libyan authorities would take action to sanction those responsible.

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

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.

Libyan authorities have apologised for the desecration of the graves.

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.