Fighting in Libya “shows no signs of abating”, the head of the United Nations Support Mission (UNSMIL), told the Security Council on Monday, painting a grim picture of worsening humanitarian conditions, and warning that the instability and influx of foreign weapons is fueling a proxy war in the north African country.
Briefing the Council via video teleconference from the Libyan capital, Ghassan Salamé, who is also the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative, said: “The war around Tripoli has already left nearly 1,100 dead, including 106 civilians.”
“Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in the capital and neighbouring districts as a result of the fighting; tens of thousands crossing the border to Tunisia seeking safety for their families.”
The conflict exploded on 4 April when the head of the eastern-based militia known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), General Khalifa Haftar, launched an offensive against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli.
“The war has worsened humanitarian conditions and hindered access to food, health and other life-saving services,” Mr. Salamé stressed. “The parties, ignoring calls for de-escalation, have intensified air campaigns, with precision airstrikes by aircraft and armed drones”.
The geographical scope of the violence has also spread.
According to the UNSMIL chief, on 26 July, for the first time, the GNA forces launched an air attack on the main rear base of the LNA in the Jufra region. And on 27 July, General Haftar s forces launched airstrikes at a GNA airbase in Misrata.
In addition to heavy weapons and ground attacks, there is an increase in foreign mercenaries.
“Forces on both sides have failed to observe their obligations under international humanitarian law,” lamented Mr. Salamé, calling “the most tragic example of indiscriminate attacks” a migrant detention centre hit on 2 July, which killed 53 and injured at least 87, including children.
Tragedy at Sea
To add to the downward spiraling situation, on 25 July, up to 150 migrants lost their lives after a boat they were travelling in capsized off the coast of Libya, further underlining “the urgent need to address the root causes of the migrant issue and their immediate suffering”, the Special Representative stated.
As UN humanitarian agencies work diligently to mitigate the “terrible conditions” in detention centers that are holding over 5,000 refugees and migrants – 3,800 of whom are exposed to fighting – Mr. Salamé urged the Council to call upon the authorities in Tripoli to shutter them and free those detained.
“UNSMIL has devised a plan for an organized and gradual closure of all detention centers and seeks your support for its implementation”, he continued, noting that so far this year, nearly 4,500 refugees and migrants disembarked in Libya, “with serious risks of detention, arbitrary arrest and being trapped by the fighting”.
The Special Representative urged European countries “to respond to the Secretary-General's repeated pleas, revisit policies and move migrants and refugees to safety”.
He also noted “with alarm” the increasing frequency of attacks on Mitiga airport, which serves as the only functioning airport in the greater Tripoli area, several of which “have come perilously close to hitting civilian aircraft with passengers on board”.
“I am afraid that with the almost daily bombardment, luck will run out”, he said. “I call upon the authorities in Tripoli to cease using the airport for military purposes and for the attacking forces to halt immediately their targeting of it”.
Uptick in violence
Briefing the council on the latest assaults, he explained that on 26 June, pro-GNA force retook the city of Gheryan, some 80 kilometers south of Tripoli.
“There are unconfirmed allegations that human rights abuses may have taken place in the town, which we are investigating”, warned Mr. Salamé, expressing fears that the recent “uptick in violence” may be “a new phase in the military campaign”.
The LNA maintains that they will not stop their attack until Tripoli is conquered while the GNA forces insist they can push General Haftar s forces back to eastern Libya.
And yet, “the parties still believe they can achieve their objectives through military means”, he highlighted, saying that both leaders have “publicly reaffirmed their commitment to a future political and electoral process but have yet to take practical steps to stop the fighting”.
“Libya’s present and future need not be taken hostage by the warring parties,” argued the Special Representative.
Turning to information dissemination, he underscored “the hatred and invective on social media and satellite television stations is fueling the violence on the ground”.
“I urge those who dwell in their self-contained silos of enmity to cease spewing hatred and start talking face-to-face with their compatriots,” he exhorted.
Pointing to the armed drones, recoilless rifles, mortar and rocket launchers that have been transferred to Libya, the UNSMIL said the nation “has become a terrain of experimentation of new military technologies and recycling of old weapons”.
“There is no doubt that external support has been instrumental in the intensification of airstrikes,” he observed adding that imported weaponry is being accompanied by foreign personnel working as pilots, trainers and technicians.
“More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed in order to settle their own scores,” Mr. Salamé declared.
Indications show that the weapons delivered by foreign supporters are “falling into the hands of terrorist groups or being sold to them”, he bemoaned. “This is nothing short of a recipe for disaster”.
UN Mission's reduced footprint
Due to the security situation, UNSMIL had to reduce its presence in Libya, but has not pulled out, allowing the UN to respond to humanitarian needs, human rights concerns, de-escalating the fighting and resuming the political process.
He was “particularly worried” that health workers and facilities are “repeatedly targeted”, noting that many medical doctors and health workers have been wounded and killed, “including 5 yesterday”.
“Impunity should not prevail especially for those who attack hospitals and ambulances” Mr. Salamé spelled out. “Protecting civilians and humanitarian workers requires sanctions against those committing crimes”.
“Almost seventy years ago, the United Nations decided to create an independent Libya”, he concluded. “Only with your imprimatur we can together help the Libyans move past this dark and violent episode and towards a more hopeful and promising future”.