Rapidly escalating violence is limiting civilians’ ability to travel in and out of Libya’s capital. An airstrike on Tripoli’s international airport Monday and other recent clashes have now forced some 3,400 people to leave their homes, according to the U.N.’s Humanitarian Affairs office.
“Clashes with heavy weapons are affecting residential areas, and an unknown additional number of civilians are unable to flee these locations,” the office said Monday.
The fighting intensified over the weekend, as soldiers loyal to Khalifa Haftar — the former army chief who now leads the Libyan National Army — neared the capital. Haftar, who is aligned with Gaddafi regime loyalists, has amassed power and resources in eastern Libya. Last week, he launched an offensive to the west, aiming to take control of the capital.
The death toll from the clashes has risen to at least 51, the Associated Press reports — citing a figure that includes both civilian and military casualties.
Relief workers are warning of a wide range of potential risks, from emergency aid that’s been blocked by the fighting to possible long-term damage to the city’s infrastructure. It’s the latest sign of renewed instability in Libya, where conflict and political uncertainty have lingered since 2011.
As he pressed his fight against the U.N.-backed central Government of National Accord, or GNA, Haftar launched an air strike on the city’s lone functioning civilian airport, Mitiga, on Monday.
The attack “constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law which prohibits attacks against civilian infrastructure,” the U.N. Support Mission in Libya said.
“The U.N. humanitarian office has recorded four civilian deaths over the past two days,” Lisa Schlein reports for NPR from Geneva. “Among the victims were two medical doctors who were killed during the clashes. U.N. agencies say they have stocks of food and emergency medical supplies in locations throughout Tripoli and can respond rapidly to a possible upsurge in humanitarian needs.”
The World Health Organization condemned the doctors’ killing, saying it was the latest in a string of violence that has either damaged or closed more than 20 hospitals over the years.
“These doctors risked their lives to evacuate wounded patients from conflict areas,” said WHO Regional Director Dr. Ahmed Al Mandhari, “and targeting them and health facilities at such times worsens the situation for civilians caught up in conflict.”
On Sunday, the deteriorating situation in Libya prompted U.S. Africa Command to announce it had “temporarily relocated” a contingent of U.S. forces.
“The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable,” said Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the Marine Corps commander of Africa Command. “Even with an adjustment of the force, we will continue to remain agile in support of existing U.S. strategy.
Haftar agreed to meet with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres last Friday. But after that meeting, Guterres said he was leaving Libya “with a deep concern and a heavy heart.”
Both the U.N. and the U.S. insist that a political process — not a military clash — is the only solution that will give Libya a lasting peace and functioning government.
“We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday.