22 April 2019

Libya: Tripoli Chaos Closes in On the City's Civilians

Photo: Al Jazeera English/YouTube
Forces loyal to renegade General Khalifa Haftar and Libya’s UN-based government fight for control of the capital.

As fighting on the outskirts of Libya's capital heads into its third week and shows no signs of abating, the casualty count is rising, some aid organisations are moving expatriate staff out of the country, and it's only getting worse for civilians on the ground.

"Humanitarian needs are growing by the day," said Rabab al-Rifai, communication coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Libya. "A large-scale escalation of violence in an urban area like Tripoli, which counts over one million inhabitants, could have dramatic consequences. The situation in and around the city has evolved rapidly over the past two weeks, and fears of yet another protracted conflict are on the rise."

Violence broke out in the southern and southeastern outskirts of Tripoli a fortnight ago, as the the Khalifa Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA), loyal to the country's eastern-based governing bodies, launched an offensive to take control of the city from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

The battle - the latest in a complex series of civil conflicts that followed the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi - comes on the back of years of UN-led efforts to broker a settlement between rival Libyan governments.

The World Health Organisation says 254 people have been killed and 1,228 wounded, while more than 32,000 people have been displaced since 4 April, including some 7,300 children.

This weekend saw several airstrikes in Tripoli, shortly after US President Donald Trump reportedly expressed support for Haftar, and the UN now says humanitarians can't access some parts of the city due to clashes and shelling.

Growing needs, limited access

In addition to distributing food and other essentials to displaced people across the city, the ICRC is bringing supplies for treating the war wounded to hospitals in the city and field hospitals further out, said al-Rifai.

The dramatic escalation in medical needs has put a burden on aid agencies and hospitals, given that Libya's crumbling healthcare system is already often unable to handle basic care.

Médecins Sans Frontières said its "teams have remained on the ground responding to medical needs", including delivering aid to shelters for displaced people and supplies to three hospitals.

The UN says it is also delivering food, medical supplies, and other items, but residents of the capital's southern suburbs, which have seen some of the most sustained fighting and are hard for humanitarians to enter safely, said little help had reached them.

"We have seen no visible movement of international organisations in our area, although some local organisations helped people," said Mohamed, a resident of a village south of the capital recently taken by the LNA.

Libyans have been mobilising via social media, requesting blood donations and encouraging their fellow citizens to offer spare rooms to people who have had to flee their homes.

Fadiel Fadel, a Tripoli-based civil society activist, criticised the the delivery of humanitarian aid by international organisations as "very weak, even with all these people fleeing".

Detained migrants thrust onto front lines

Migrants and refugees remain in serious danger.

The UN's refugee agency said on Friday that it had moved a total of 539 refugees away from the fighting and evacuated 163 on a flight to Niger, but it still estimates that more than 3,000 migrants and refugees, including children, are in detention centres near front lines.

"Over 3,000 refugees and migrants trapped in detention centres are at a severe risk of being caught in the crossfire," said MSF's field communication coordinator Jason Rizzo. "These people are unable to seek safety on their own, and their provision of food, water, medical care, and other essential services has deteriorated from already poor levels seen before the fighting."

Three detention centres are in the direct vicinity of fighting, while several others in Tripoli's south and southeastern suburbs are now dangerously close to the clashes.

"The Qasr bin Gashir detention centre is now on the other side of front lines in an area of active fighting, and our medical teams have been unable to reach the nearly 900 people who are trapped there," Rizzo said. "MSF is calling for all refugees and migrants in Tripoli detention centres to be immediately evacuated out of the country due to the severe life-threatening risk amidst the worsening conflict."

There are an estimated 670,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, and those who are not in detention and have been displaced by the violence in Tripoli "continue to face discrimination... [in accessing] collective shelters", according to the UN.

International withdrawal

Within days of the outbreak of violence, international organisations began pulling their expatriate staff out of Tripoli due to safety concerns, although some remain on the ground.

Safa Msehli, information officer for IOM, the UN's migration agency, said that "as it stands IOM maintains its operations in Libya," but added that the security situation remained unpredictable.

"Although local staff are still active, international presence has been seriously minimised and all non-essential staff... have already been evacuated," said a Libyan employee of a major international NGO, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media. "You can't blame them," the NGO employee added, noting that the agencies were likely looking to avoid an international crisis or a rescue mission.

The point was reinforced by ICRC's al-Rifai. "There is no doubt that our strength lies in our Libyan colleagues, who have been working to respond to the needs of the populations over the past two weeks in various parts of Tripoli," he said.

The international community has been in this position before. During Tripoli's last major outbreak of violence, a five-week militia-led conflict in 2014 that left civilian infrastructure and the international airport destroyed, most major NGOs and Western embassies pulled out of Libya.

Five years later, much of the aid operation is still headquartered in Tunisia, and a return to Libya since mid-2017 has been slow and cautious.

Although NGO press officers refer to current staff movements to Tunisia as "temporary", the earlier exodus left many Libyans feeling abandoned by the international community, and now they are concerned the shift is a sign they are in for a repetition of the ruinous 2014 conflict.

"Libyans are not happy about the withdrawal of embassies and international NGOs, which many view as caring about themselves but not Libyans," said Fadel. "I'm not exaggerating when I say Libyans feel they are now facing the same future as Syria or Yemen."

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