A peaceful Libya remains distant as Tripoli falls again into violence

Kamel Abdallah , Sunday 30 Sep 2018

After a brief period of calm, Libya’s capital has fallen again into militia violence, with the UN and national government scrambling to reinstate peace

Government forces in Tripoli
Government forces patrol a street during renewed clashes in south of Tripoli (Photo: AFP)

Fierce clashes continue to flare since the ceasefire collapsed between warring militias in southern Tripoli early last week.

Last Sunday, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which had brokered the ceasefire agreement, warned that anyone in Tripoli that violated international humanitarian law risked sanctions and prosecution, as occurred with the former commander of the Petroleum Facilities Guards, Ibrahim Jadran, whose name was added to the UN Security Council’s sanctions list earlier this month.

In a message on its official Twitter account, UNSMIL expressed its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the Tripoli clashes.

It stressed that justice cannot be achieved through revenge and reiterated its caution that it is preparing a list of international humanitarian law violators to submit to the UN Security Council for sanctions and prosecution.

Health authorities in Tripoli reported that the violent clashes in the southern districts of the capital have claimed at least 115 dead and 383 wounded since the fighting erupted between militia groups on 26 August.

In addition, hundreds of families have been forced to flee their homes due to the ongoing exchanges of missile fire which continues to cause severe damage to public and private property.

UMSMIL warned militia forces against launching attacks from populated residential areas, making specific mention of two militia groups in particular: the Abu Slim Central Security Brigade commanded by Abdel-Ghani Al-Kikli, AKA Ghnewa, which is based in the most densely populated quarters of the capital, and the Misrata-based Al-Sumoud Brigade led by Salah Badi.

The UN organisation reiterated its caution that exposing civilians to harm is prohibited under international humanitarian law and that it would report violators to the Security Council’s sanctions committee.

The warnings have done nothing to convince the warring groups to return to the ceasefire.

In late August, the Seventh Infantry Brigade, which is based in the city of Tarhuna south of Tripoli, marched on the capital with the stated purpose of driving out the Tripoli Cartel, a consortium of militias that has controlled the capital since March 2016.

Recently, the Seventh Infantry Brigade, known locally in Tarhuna as the Kaniyat Brigade, was joined by Salah Badi’s Al-Sumoud Brigade.

Their adversaries, the Tripoli Cartel, which is also known as the Tripoli Protection Force, consists of four main militia groups: the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB), the Nawasi Battalion and the Abu Slim unit of the Central Security apparatus.

On 4 September, UNSMIL sponsored a security dialogue, in the western city of Zawiya, between representatives of the combatant parties which, at the end of the meeting, signed a truce and ceasefire agreement.

On 9 September, this was bolstered by a second agreement which introduced a mechanism for the withdrawal of the militia formations from government institutions and facilities, the appointment of a new security arrangements committee, and the revocation of the authorities for security that the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord had conferred on the militia groups under the umbrella of the Tripoli Protection Force.

Late last week, Presidency Council Chairman Fayez Al-Sarraj, announced the creation of a committee to oversee the implementation of the new security measures.

He simultaneously charged police and military forces with the task of separating the fighting parties and re-establishing law and order in southern Tripoli, and ordered the militia groups to release all detained and imprisoned persons apart from those wanted on criminal or terrorist charges.

The instructions have not been carried out with any degree of seriousness or efficacy by the time this report was filed.

Last Thursday, UNSMIL hosted a meeting with representatives of the diplomatic community in Tripoli and Libyan security officials to fill them in on the next steps that will be taken in the implementation of the new security measures in the capital.

UNSMIL reassured the participants that the new arrangements would not simply replace old militia formations with new ones. It stressed that all the new security forces will be drawn from official government forces and recruited from all parts of Libya.

The Deputy Special Representative for Political Affairs at UNSMIL Stephanie Williams, continued her meetings with political and security leaders in Tripoli in order to promote progress in the implementation of the security arrangements and to avert further military escalation in south Tripoli.

UN Secretary General António Guterres, for his part, expressed his alarm at the increasing number of violations of the ceasefire agreement.

In a statement delivered by his spokesperson on 21 September he urged “all parties to the conflict to respect the ceasefire and refrain from any actions that would increase the suffering of the civilian population” and emphasised that “anyone responsible for the violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law must be held responsible.”

The flare-up of militia violence compelled the Secretary General’s Special representative to Libya and head of UNSMIL Ghassan Salame, to cancel his visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly meetings on the sidelines of which will be held a high-level meeting to discuss the latest developments in Libya and forthcoming UN action plans for Libya.

In a television interview Wednesday last week, Salame said that he intended to propose to the Security Council amendments to the Working Plan for Libya, which he had unveiled in New York last year, on 20 September 2017, in light of the recent security developments and the persistent political stalemate in the country.

Libya needs to formulate a new political agreement acceptable to all parties, he said, adding that he was not bound to the current agreement that Libyan factions signed in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015.

After nearly three years, Libyan parties are still at loggerheads over some of the wording and the outputs of this agreement.

As the militia violence in south Tripoli enters its second month, no significant progress has been made in carrying out the instructions of the Presidency Council and the new security arrangements. The forces tasked with separating the militias and securing the peace have yet to begin work.

Ironically, the new situation appears to have cast Tripoli back to the period before May 2014 when the militias from Misrata and Zintan held sway in the capital.

The recent clashes made it possible for the Misrata militia forces to return to the eastern districts of Tripoli, near Mitiga Airport, which is currently controlled by the SDF.

Relations are tense between the SDF and some contingents of the forces affiliated with Misrata. At the same time, forces affiliated with Zintan have returned to southwestern portions of the capital.

The Zintan militias were driven out of Tripoli during Operation Libya Dawn, launched in August 2014 after Zintan militia leaders declared that they had forged an alliance with the commander of the Libyan National Army, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who, on 16 May 2014, had launched Operation Dignity in Benghazi.

On Saturday, the Tripoli Protection Force, or Tripoli Cartel, launched the Badr Operation against the forces that had attacked Tripoli, which it described as “Kharijites”.

The cartel’s adversaries countered that the “Tripoli Protection Force” had swelled its ranks with jihadist Salafi from all over the country. They said that this applied, above all, to the SDF which controls Mitiga Airport.

The forces that have recently entered Tripoli aim, above all, to curb the SDF’s power which had grown considerably after the Presidency Council restructured the force, expanded its security jurisdiction and granted it the right to use moneys and properties it sequestered to fund its activities.

These actions on the part of the Presidency Council sparked a widespread outcry when they were announced several months ago. Opponents called on UNSMIL, when it was hosting talks in Zawiya at the beginning of this month, to add a point to the agreement that would oblige the Presidency Council to revoke the decisions that granted such extensive powers to militia groups.

Haftar has kept a distance from the current clashes in the capital. In a meeting with leaders from the Awaqir, the largest tribal federation in eastern Libya, he said that the militias that are currently fighting in Tripoli “have no connection whatsoever with the army”.

Describing the current military actions there as “impromptu”, he stressed that “when we believe the time is right, we will move to Tripoli and the operations will proceed in a proper manner.”

He added: “The militia leaders in Tripoli have become rich and criminals. Our suggestion to them is to leave Libya and, consequently, face justice or reconcile with society.”

Alluding to the support those militia leaders received from the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, led by Al-Sarraj, he stressed: “No one will escape the law.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tripoli violence, UN threatens sanctions

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