Libyan authorities in Tripoli detain hundreds of people suspected of trying to reach Europe illegally | Photo: EPA/STR
Libyan authorities in Tripoli detain hundreds of people suspected of trying to reach Europe illegally | Photo: EPA/STR

Nearly three weeks since fighting began near the Libyan capital Tripoli, the United Nations warned that refugees and migrants remain exposed to clashes. According to the UN's refugee agency, some 3,600 of them are trapped in detention centers near the frontline.

The fighting in Libya's capital has reached a detention center holding hundreds of detained migrants and refugees, the UN said Tuesday. A spokesperson said the agency had received reports that the Qasr bin Ghashir detention center, holding some 890 refugees and migrants, was "breached by armed actors." The facility is 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) south of central Tripoli.

Also on Tuesday, UN migration agency IOM said that migrants in the same facility were reportedly seriously wounded in a random shooting. However, a UNHCR spokesperson on Wednesday told InfoMigrants that while "violence was used to calm the situation" in the detention center, resulting in 12 injured persons, none of the injuries were due to bullets. The spokesperson couldn’t confirm whether the violence was carried out by the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). For the time being, UNHCR does not have access to the center.

While there is no confirmation yet on who is responsible for the incident at Qasr bin Ghashir, some of the migrants InfoMigrants talked to via WhatsApp said it was LNA forces. "Armed men may belong to Haftar's LNA," a migrant in the Abu Salim detention center said. "They conducted searches for mobile phones before the attack. Tanks are surrounding the center." 

"We are in desperate need for medical assistance, around 10 people are bleeding," a migrant in the Qasr bin Ghashir center said.

UNHCR said that over the past two weeks, it has moved 541 vulnerable refugees from the detention centers of Qasr bin Ghashir, Ain Zara, Abu Salim and Janzour to a safe location in central Tripoli as these detention centers are in areas "very close to the ongoing fighting and clashes," UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said. Baloch said the UNHCR also evacuated more than 160 refugees from Libya to Niger last Friday. 

However, the UN said some 3,600 refugees and migrants are still being held in facilities near the front lines. Five detention centers are in areas already engulfed by fighting, while six more are in close proximity to the clashes.

"The situation in these detention centres is increasingly desperate, with reports of guards abandoning their posts and leaving people trapped inside," a UN spokesperson said, adding that one facility has been without drinking water for days. 

Libya hosts more than 700,000 people who have fled their homelands, often trekking through the desert in pursuit of their dream of crossing the sea to a better life in Europe.

UN says over 270 killed

Libya became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after the uprising that toppled and killed Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Thousands have been detained by armed groups and smugglers.

The latest fighting in Libya, which started on April 4th, pits the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by field marshal Khalifa Haftar, against rival militias allied with the internationally recognized but weak Government of National Accord (GNA). Eastern-based strongman Haftar launched the offensive on the capital Tripoli, held by the GNA, as his Libyan National Army pledged "to purge the west [of Libya] of terrorists and mercenaries".

Over the weekend, forces loyal to the GNA launched a counter-attack. The fighting has since eased somewhat as both sides appear to be preparing for the next phase of the battle, but intermittent explosions and gunfire have continued. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the fighting so far has killed more than 270 people, including civilians, and wounded nearly 1,300. It also warned that "large number" of people are seeking shelter in medical clinics, while civilians continue to be killed or injured. The WHO called for "a temporary cessation of hostilities, and for all parties to respect humanitarian law."

Fighting in Tripoli's southern suburbs has so far displaced at least 35,000 people, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya Maria do Valle Ribeiro said Monday. "Displacement is continuing at an increasing rate every day," she said, warning that the figures were a conservative estimate.

Military deadlock

Since the Government of National Accord’s counter-attack on Saturday, the Libyan National Army and the GNA reached a near stalemate. Another frontline, aside from Tripoli itself, is around 30 kilometers southwest of the capital on a key road between Tripoli and the old international airport.

GNA forces spokesman Mustafa al-Mejii said Tuesday most fronts were "calm" and that pro-GNA troops had been ordered to consolidate positions around the airport.

Early in the evening, Tripoli was rocked by an enormous blast which the GNA said was caused by an LNA airstrike targeting pro-unity government forces on Tripoli's western outskirts. "There were no casualties or material damage," the GNA said.

Calls for civilian protection and ceasefire

Valle Ribeiro, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya, said civilians were being displaced every day, while some had been trapped by fire including "heavy artillery and... shelling in some densely populated parts of the city."

"Any country that has leverage should be using that leverage to ensure that civilians can be protected," Valle Ribeiro said. In a joint statement, African leaders on Tuesday called for an "immediate and unconditional halt" to fighting in Libya following a summit in Cairo led by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, current chair of the African Union (AU).

The AU's Libya "troika," which includes Sisi and his Rwandan and South African counterparts, urged "all parties to act with restraint" and to facilitate "the delivery of humanitarian aid". Egypt and the UAE, which strongly oppose Islamist militants and the Muslim Brotherhood, back LNA-leader Haftar.

US undercuts restraint calls, Russia calls for ceasefire

Haftar also spoke to US President Donald Trump over the phone last week - an implicit sign of US support that undercut international calls for restraint on all sides. And while the UN recognizes the GNA and its leader Fayez al-Sarraj, Haftar's diplomatic star appears to be rising.

The White House said that Trump "recognized Field Marshal Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources." This came a day after Russia and the United States opposed a British bid at the UN Security Council, backed by France and Germany, to demand a ceasefire in Libya.

On Wednesday afternoon, a top Russian diplomat called on the self-styled Libyan National Army to cease fire and stop its advance on Tripoli.

With material from Reuters, AP and AFP


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