By Sami Zaptia.
London, 25 March 2020:
Tripoli experienced another night of intense bombing last night of its civilian areas. Residents reported they were unable to sleep all last night through to this morning. Several neighbourhoods were hit causing much damage to property and vehicles. Several fires broke out.
This attack seems to be a reaction to a rare aggressive action by the forces loyal to the internationally recognized Libyan government based in Tripoli and led by Faiez Serraj. Overnight, these forces occupied the north western Wittia airbase near the Tunisian border while launching attacks on multiple fronts of Tripoli’s perimeters.
At the time of publication, the Wittia situation is still fluid with both sides claiming success. The Khalifa Hafter-led Libyan National Army (LNA) claim they had repelled the attack and retaken the base. They also claim they had repelled all the attacks and that they are launching their own counter attacks. They also claim they expect the forces defending Tripoli to launch further attacks, including on Tarhuna.
Meanwhile, UNSMIL issued another statement attempting to put the fighting through a wider Coronavirus perspective.
UNSMIL said that ‘‘while the whole world is engaged in fighting the spread of COVID-19, which has overwhelmed several well-resourced countries, attacks and counter attacks in Libya continue to inflict further suffering and civilian casualties!’’
It called for ‘‘an immediate de-escalation, including cessation of hostilities, demobilization of forces, and stopping the influx of foreign fighters and weapons’’.
It added that ‘‘Libyans need to shift their focus to the fight against COVID-19’’. It reminded all parties to the conflict in Libya of their obligations in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law to ensure protection of civilians.
It will be recalled that the international community (17 March) and UNSMIL (18 March) had called for a ‘‘humanitarian pause’’ in fighting in order to focus on fighting the bigger enemy; Coronavirus (Covid19).
UNSMIL had pointed out in an earlier statement that COVID-19 has no affiliation and breaks through all frontlines, and had called on all Libyans to join forces immediately before it is too late to face this overwhelming, fast-spreading threat, which requires consolidating all resources and efforts for the prevention, awareness and treatment of possible victims.
It encouraged the implementation of a consolidated mechanism to face COVID-19 in Libya in close collaboration with WHO and other UN agencies on the ground, and the friends of Libya.
Both the combatant sides, the internationally recognized Libyan government in Tripoli (19 March) and the Khalifa Hafter-led LNA (21 March), had made positive responses to the call for a humanitarian pause. And UNSMIL had welcomed these. However, the ‘‘pause’’ has been ignored by both sides – with both sides accusing the other of violating the truce.
In truth, there has never been a truce since a theoretical one had been agreed to and announced at the 19 January Berlin conference on Libya and the resultant 12 February UN Security Council resolution endorsing the Berlin outcomes and calling for an immediate truce.
Nevertheless, Acting SGSR Stephanie Williams had said that “Despite the calls by many UN Member States, UNSMIL and the Secretary-General for an immediate cessation of hostilities to enable joint approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic, armed clashes, shelling, and mobilisation of forces in Libya continue, with unacceptable disregard for the safety and wellbeing of the civilian population.”
“The continuation of the fighting risks an undetected and out-of-control spread of the COVID-19,” Williams warned. She reiterated her call on all parties to the conflict in Libya to respect international human rights and humanitarian law, to abide by the commitments they have publicly made to halt all military operations, and to put the interests of their people and communities first, above any other considerations.
The intensity of fighting is put into an even sharper perspective as it comes as Libya announced its first case of Coronavirus last night. It also comes as both sides of the political divide seem to be making visible progress in mitigating and preparing for Covid19.
Meanwhile, Libya’s oil blockade continues since 17 January in the lead up to the Berlin Libya conference. The NOC had attributed the closures to the pro Khalifa Hafter forces guarding the oilfields and ports. The blockade has lost Libya nearly US$ 4bn in revenues, the country’s National Oil Corporation reports.