Ambush sets back UN hopes of returning to Libya
The ambush of a United Nations convoy close to Tripoli on Wednesday has underlined the dangers diplomats face in the anarchic country and is likely to delay plans to relocate its mission to Libya from neighbouring Tunisia.
No one was hurt in the attack on the United Nations Support Mission to Libya (UNSMIL) convoy, although some staff were detained briefly.
UN staff may have hoped the size of their convoy, composed of five armoured jeeps and an undeclared number of bodyguards, would guarantee safety as it drove along the busy coastal highway to Tripoli from a data collection centre in Surman, 25 kilometres to the west of the city.
Yet the convoy was ambushed by rocket and gunfire in Zawiya shortly after it left Surman in the early afternoon by gunmen who have yet to be identified.
Pictures on social media showed an unmarked white jeep with what appear to be two bullet strikes that failed to penetrate armoured glass windows, and damage to the front wheel.
UNSMIL said all staff were safe after media reports that several were detained by a local militia, and thanked officials of both the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the House of Representatives (HOR) parliament, which runs a rival administration based in eastern Libya.
A UN statement confirmed “the safe return of UN staff to Tripoli” following the attack and thanked the GNA, HOR members from Zawiya and local authorities for their help.
Britain’s Libya ambassador Peter Millet tweeted his concern about the ambush, saying: “Disturbed by attack on @UNSMILibya convoy. Hope all safe. UN staff represent international community’s commitment to help Libyan people.”
The highway between Surman, just west of Zawiya, and Tripoli has been the scene of fighting between rival militias for more than three years. Armed car-jackings and kidnappings are common, often leading to the highway being closed.
Adding to the insecurity is the presence of armed people smugglers who send thousands of migrants to Europe in rickety boats from nearby beaches.
Militia anarchy is the problem the GNA was installed in Tripoli, with UN blessing, to solve. However, 15 months after taking office, this government has failed to get a grip on security. Tripoli is in the hands of militias who fight periodic battles with each other, the latest on May 26 leaving 23 dead.
The UN hoped it could relocate to Tripoli at an unspecified date later this year from Tunis, where UNSMIL has been based since evacuating the Libyan capital at the onset of civil war in July 2014. Those plans are likely to be put on hold with diplomats concerned that road transport remains risky.
Finding a way for the GNA to get a grip on security will be a priority for the incoming UNSMIL envoy, former Lebanese culture minister Ghassan Salame, who is taking over from German diplomat Martin Kobler. One test will be whether the GNA makes arrests after investigating Wednesday’s ambush.
A second problem Mr Salame must grapple with is that much of Libya, including the so-called Oil Crescent in the east of the country, home to much of Libya’s oil production, is under control of the HOR, which refuses to accept the authority of the GNA.
Updated: June 30, 2017 04:00 AM