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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

UN's Libya envoy sounds alarm after militia clashes in Tripoli

Closure of Tripoli airport because of fighting forces Ghassan Salame to deliver report from neighbouring Tunisia 

The Mitiga airport in the Libyan capital Tripoli on January 16, 2018, a day after it was forced to shut down amid fighting between rival militias. Mahmud Turkia / AFP
The Mitiga airport in the Libyan capital Tripoli on January 16, 2018, a day after it was forced to shut down amid fighting between rival militias. Mahmud Turkia / AFP

The UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, said military forces “are flexing their muscles in many parts of the country”, imperilling a peace process centred on creating a united government for the war-scarred nation.

Tripoli, the capital, remains tense after fighting on Monday between rival militias around the Mitiga airport in the city centre left 20 dead, 63 wounded, and much of the country’s small commercial airline fleet wrecked.

The fighting came on the heels of militia battles earlier this month for control of Ras Adjir, Libya’s main crossing point with Tunisia, and amid ongoing fighting around the north-eastern coastal city of Derna.

Such is the chaos that Mr Salame had to explain to the UN Security Council in New York that he was briefing them, via video link, from Tunisia’s capital Tunis because Tripoli too unsafe.

“The very reason that I am not briefing from Tripoli ... as I had planned, is because bloody clashes at the airport have halted all flights in and out of Mitiga airport for the whole week,” said Mr Salame, the UN secretary general's special representative to Libya.

Tripoli remains tense after Monday’s clashes, in which a group of radical militias attacked forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) at Mitiga airport, hoping to free some of their members held prisoner there.

Pro-government forces beat the attacks off, but the capital remains tense in expectation of a counter-attack from anti-GNA militias mustering in eastern and southern Tripoli. Mitiga, Libya’s main air link to the outside world, will remain shut until Sunday.

The fighting was a brutal reminder of how little has been achieved since an agreement was announced in Paris last July to disband the militias.

That agreement, overseen by French president Emmanuel Macron, was between GNA prime minister Fayez Al Serraj and the country’s most powerful military commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of eastern Libya’s Libyan National Army. Building on diplomatic groundwork laid by the UAE and Egypt, the agreement stipulates that militia formations are to disband and be replaced by regular army and police forces.

Yet six months later Tripoli remains in the grip of militias, some supporting the GNA and some opposing it. Complicating the picture further, the Libyan National Army, which holds most of eastern Libya and the country’s key oilfields, is loyal to the national parliament based in Tobruk which operates a rival government to the GNA.

Mr Salame, a Lebanese academic and former culture minister, insisted in his UN briefing on Wednesday that peace talks are making progress towards the goal of creating a unified Libyan government.

“Libya needs a competent and efficient government,” he said. “One which can deliver the public services the people desperately need.”

Libya has been in chaos ever since the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, with civil war breaking out in 2014. Mr Salame is seeking agreement from all parties to revise the constitution of the GNA, a transitional government which was set up in December 2015 but has yet to win acceptance from much of the country. The UN envoy is hoping the GNA will win broader support with a plan to cut its existing nine-strong presidency to three members.

Mr Salame said there was now consensus to reform the GNA to ensure it represents all Libyans. “Although a formal agreement is yet to be reached, this consensus is desirable and reachable,” he said.

While underlining the desperate needs of migrants trapped in Libya, the envoy said the plight of Libyans was also urgent. “The concentration on migration should not however allow us to forget those many Libyans held without judicial process, and often subject to ill-treatment,” he said. “Fuel shortages, electricity shortages, water shortages are common across the country.”

Yet with every new round of fighting, Libya’s situation grows more desperate. On Thursday, sand barriers erected by Tripoli’s galaxy of rival militias were being removed after local ceasefires were negotiated, but intra-militia fighting has become a common occurrence in the capital, with the city lacking regular police or military formations to counter it.

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Read more:

At least 20 dead as clashes shut airport in Libyan capital

Italy promises to airlift 10,000 migrants from Libya

Libya commander Khalifa Haftar signals start of race for power

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