More coronavirus cases in Libya as fighting rages

The United Nations has urged warring parties to stop fighting so the overstretched health system can prepare.

    Artillery blasts shook Libya's capital Tripoli on Sunday as fighting raged and the nation confirmed five more cases of the coronavirus for a total of eight.

    The National Centre for Disease Control said the new cases were in the northwestern city of Misrata, held by the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is at war with the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar.

    In chaos and without central authority since 2011, Western-backed uprising that overthrew strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is poorly placed to withstand any pandemic.

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    The United Nations has urged warring parties to stop fighting so the overstretched health system can prepare. Cycles of conflict have destroyed much of Libya's infrastructure, and a financial crisis has stopped salaries to many medics.

    The current phase of warfare began last year when Haftar's LNA began an offensive to capture Tripoli, the seat of the UN-recognised GNA.

    The conflict escalated last week when pro-GNA fighters mounted assaults on several fronts with clashes, bombardment and air raids. The LNA had earlier been shelling Tripoli.

    Loud blasts could be heard in central Tripoli on Sunday from fighting in the south of the city, one of the fiercest front lines, witnesses said.

    Prisoners freed

    Libya's justice ministry announced that more than 450 prisoners were being freed in a bid to protect against the spread of coronavirus.

    Judicial officials decided to "free 466 detainees from correctional facilities" in Tripoli, according to a GNA statement.

    The detainees were in pretrial detention or had qualified for conditional release, it added.

    Other measures "aimed at reducing the overpopulation of prisons" will follow, including amnesty for elderly or ill prisoners and those who have served more than half their sentences.

    Human Rights Watch applauded the justice ministry's move as a "positive first step", but said, "authorities should do more to mitigate the risks of a major COVID-19 outbreak".

    Libyan authorities "need to be prepared to limit the spread of the virus in overcrowded detention facilities and shelters for displaced people", HRW said in a statement.

    Since April 2019, forces loyal to Haftar have been fighting to seize the capital in an offensive that has killed hundreds and displaced 150,000 people.

    "If the COVID-19 pandemic spreads in Libya, the country's healthcare system won't be able to cope with large numbers of patients," said HRW Libya researcher Hanan Salah.

    Both the UN-recognised GNA and a rival eastern-based government under the control of Haftar have taken preventive measures against the spread of the virus, including closing schools, some businesses, markets and even private clinics.

    The GNA announced an extended curfew on Sunday from 2pm local time (12:00 GMT) until 7am, starting from Monday. 

    Can world leaders bring peace to Libya?

    The Stream

    Can world leaders bring peace to Libya?

    SOURCE: News agencies