The United Nations has evacuated 150 refugees from a detention centre in Tripoli, as fierce clashes for control of the Libyan capital led to the postponement of a peace conference planned for next week.
In recent days, forces loyal to renegade General Khalifa Haftar have advanced on the city, the base of the country’s internationally-backed government.
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At least 47 people, including nine civilians, have been killed in the fighting since the launch of the offensive on Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.
The escalating situation on the outskirts of Tripoli threatens to further destabilise Libya and triggered fears that it could spill into urban warfare inside the capital, which is defended by local militias and other groups, including battle-hardened forces from the city of Misrata.
As fighting rages, rights groups and humanitarian organisations have also expressed deep concerns over the fate of thousands of refugees and migrants held in detention centres across Tripoli, including in active conflict zones.
In a statement on Tuesday, the UN’s refugee agency said that “in light of current insecurity in Libya’s capital … [it] relocated more than 150 refugees from the Ain Zara detention centre in south Tripoli”.
It noted that the detention centre had been “impacted by heavy clashes in the past few days”, and added that the refugees were now in a nearby “safe zone”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Friday, a refugee held at the Ain Zara detention centre said most of the guards in charge of them had left and food had run out.
The oil-rich country, which has been in turmoil since the NATO-backed removal of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, has two rival governments: an internationally recognised government based in Tripoli and headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and an administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk, which is allied with Haftar.
The UN had scheduled a three-day conference on April 14 in the southwestern town of Ghadames to discuss a constitutional framework for elections as a way to end the North African country’s eight-year crisis.
But on Tuesday, the UN’s envoy for Libya on Tuesday announced the postponement of the summit.
“We cannot ask people to take part in the conference during gunfire and air strikes,” Ghassan Salame said, vowing to hold the event “as soon as possible … on the day when conditions of its success are ensured.”
His statement came a day after Tripoli’s only working airport was hit in an air raid, causing services to be temporarily suspended.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from the capital, said that “the civil aviation authorities have resumed only return flights to Mitiga airport, but departure flights are not allowed yet.”
“The situation is still very tense with attacks and counterattacks,” he added.
International calls for ceasefire
The UN Security Council is due to hold urgent closed-door sessions on Wednesday dealing with the crisis.
The United States, European Union, UN and G7 bloc have called for a ceasefire, a return to the UN peace plan and the end of Haftar’s military push.
Separately, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet reiterated those calls and urged both sides to refrain from further escalation.
“The people of Libya have long been caught between numerous warring parties, with some of the most vulnerable suffering some of the gravest violations of their human rights,” Bachelet said in a statement on Tuesday.
“I appeal to all sides to come together to avoid further senseless violence and bloodshed,” she added.
In addition to the 47 people killed, at least 181 people have been wounded in recent days, the WHO said.
At least 3,400 people have been displaced by the fighting, according to the latest UN count.
In central Tripoli on Tuesday, while there were no signs of military vehicles or personnel on the streets on Tuesday, residents were apprehensive about the prospect of violence.
“War is war: I am not afraid of the Libyan National Army, but I am afraid of the destruction that will never be reconstructed,” Mohamed Salem al-Sharwe, a taxi driver in Tripoli, told Reuters News Agency.