The impact of Libya’s nine-year war on civilians is “incalculable”, a UN official has said, with rising casualties and nearly 900,000 people now needing assistance.
Yacoub El Hillo said on Monday a 55-point road map for ending the war in Libya – agreed to by 12 key leaders at a conference in Berlin on January 19 – has seen “serious violations” in the last 10 days with fighting in and around the capital, Tripoli.
The protracted conflict is “severely impacting civilians in all parts of the country on a scale never seen before”, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya said in a video briefing to journalists from Tripoli.
El Hillo said “the increasing use of explosive weapons has resulted in unnecessary loss of life”, pointing to attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, particularly health facilities, that have doubled since 2019, resulting in at least 650 civilians killed or wounded.
He cited a UN mine expert in Libya who said last week the country has the world’s largest uncontrolled ammunition stockpile, with an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes of uncontrolled munitions across the country.
Libya “is also the largest theatre for drone technology”, El Hillo said, stressing “everyone has something flying in the Libyan sky, it seems”.
The Berlin peace plan backed a ceasefire, called for compliance with a UN arms embargo, and said all countries must refrain from interfering in the conflict between the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and rebel forces led by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar.
On Friday, Haftar dashed hopes for a truce, saying there would be no peace until the “militias” holding Tripoli had been defeated. For its part, Tripoli demanded that Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) pull back 1,000km (620 miles) to the east, something he rejected.
“Each time we have any kind of agreement … we always saw the same pattern,” said Taher el-Sonni, the GNA’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“It’s more like gaining time, then [Haftar decides to] just use force.”
A weak UN-recognised administration that holds the capital and parts of the country’s west is backed by Turkey, which recently sent thousands of soldiers and military equipment to Libya and, to a lesser degree, Qatar and Italy as well as local militias.
Haftar’s army is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was later killed. In the chaos that followed, the country was divided.
El Hillo said that, at the end of 2019, more than 345,000 people had fled their homes and become displaced, including 150,000 in and around Tripoli, since Haftar’s offensive began last April.
More than half the nearly 900,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance are women and children, he said, and more than 30 percent are migrants and refugees.
“Unless we speak so bluntly and openly … unless we start naming and shaming, we will have the resolutions but the reality on the ground will remain appalling,” El Hillo said.
Analysts say Libya’s combatants are readying for a long conflict as foreign weapons flood in, eastern factions close oil ports, and rival alliances wrangle over revenue from Africa’s largest petroleum reserves.
“We are not happy with what is happening now, but we have ways to escalate if the international community does not listen to us,” said tribal leader Sanoussi al-Zwai, a commander with Haftar’s forces.
“There will be a major escalation… If it comes to it, the world knows what escalation is,” he told Reuters news agency in the main eastern city of Benghazi, without saying what an escalation would involve.
Both sides are racing to rearm, receiving shipments before and after foreign backers agreed to enforce the arms embargo at the German summit.
Haftar’s forces and their foreign backers have stopped fighter jet attacks on the capital but Western diplomats and analysts say this is a result of improved air defences supplied by Turkey rather than a genuine desire for peace.
Syrian fighters sent by Turkey have helped reverse small LNA gains, restoring the front lines to roughly where they settled just after the LNA attack began in April 2019.
Estimates by diplomats in Turkey of the number of Syrian fighters vary from 1,500 to 3,000, while the number of Turkish troops was seen at between 200 and 500, including special forces, conventional soldiers, and drone operators.
“Both sides are preparing for the next battle,” said a Western diplomat.
Representatives of the warring parties are scheduled to begin a second round of talks on Tuesday in Geneva under the auspices of the UN with the aim of agreeing to a lasting ceasefire.