Fears grow over wider war in Libya as deadly battles erupt in capital – National

Rival factions battled in the Libyan capital on Saturday in the worst fighting in two years as a months-long political stalemate erupted into urban warfare that threatens to escalate into a wider conflict.

A Health Ministry source said 23 people were killed in Saturday’s fighting, including 17 civilians. The ministry said earlier that 87 people were injured.

Sustained fighting in the city for control of the government would likely plunge Libya back into all-out war after two years of relative peace that led to an aborted political process to hold national elections.

Libya’s power stalemate has pitted the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) under Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah against a rival administration under Fathi Bashagha that is backed by the east-based parliament.

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Bashagha-aligned forces attempted to take territory in Tripoli from several directions on Saturday, but its main military convoy turned back towards Misrata before reaching the capital, eyewitnesses said.

Dbeibah later uploaded a video showing him visiting with fighters in the city after the clashes ended.

Fighting had broken out overnight and intensified in the morning, with small arms fire, heavy machine guns and mortars deployed in central areas. Columns of black smoke rose across the Tripoli skyline and gunfire and explosions echoed through the air.

In the afternoon, forces aligned with Bashagha appeared to be converging on Tripoli from three directions. In Janzour, northwest of Tripoli, a main access point for some pro-Bashagha forces, locals reported intense clashes.

South of Tripoli, witnesses in the Abu Salim district said there was heavy gunfire after a video circulating on social media, which Reuters could not authenticate, appeared to show a powerful commander pro-Bashagha launching an assault there.

Meanwhile, an eyewitness said a main convoy of more than 300 Bashagha-affiliated vehicles set off towards Tripoli from the northeast along the coastal road. Eyewitnesses said he returned to his base in Misrata.

Turkey, which has a military presence around Tripoli and helped forces in the city fight off an eastern assault in 2020 with drone strikes, called for an immediate ceasefire and said « we let’s continue to support our Libyan brothers ».

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« It’s horrible. My family and I couldn’t sleep because of the clashes. The noise was too loud and too scary, » said Abdulmenam Salem, a resident of central Tripoli. « We stayed awake in case we We had to leave quickly. It’s a terrible feeling.

Large armed factions supporting each side in Libya’s political conflict have repeatedly mobilized around Tripoli in recent weeks, with convoys of military vehicles moving through the city and threatening to use force to achieve their goals.

Ali, a 23-year-old student who declined to give his last name, said he fled his apartment with his family overnight after bullets hit their building. “We could no longer stay and survive,” he added.

Libya has seen little peace since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi and it split in 2014 between rival eastern and western factions, dragging down regional powers. Libyan oil production, the main reward for the warring groups, was interrupted several times during the years of chaos.

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An offensive in 2019 by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, backed by the eastern-based parliament, collapsed in 2020, leading to a ceasefire and a UN-backed peace process.

The truce included setting up Dbeibah’s GNU to govern all of Libya and oversee national elections that were scheduled for last December but were scrapped due to disputes over the vote.

The parliament declared that Dbeibah’s term had expired and he appointed Bashagha to take over. Dbeibah said parliament had no right to replace him and that he would only step down after an election.

Bashagha attempted to enter Tripoli in May, which resulted in a shootout and his departure from the city.

Since then, however, a series of agreements have resulted in realignments of some armed factions within the main coalitions clashing around Tripoli.

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Haftar remains closely allied with the east-based parliament and after his 2019-20 offensive some groups in Tripoli remain deeply opposed to any coalition in which he plays a role.

A GNU statement said the latest clashes in Tripoli were sparked by Bashagha-aligned fighters firing on a convoy in the capital while other pro-Bashagha units massed outside the city. He accused Bashagha of pulling out of the talks to resolve the crisis.

Bashagha’s administration said in a statement that it never rejected the talks and that its own overtures were rejected by Dbeibah. He did not directly respond to the claim that he was linked to the clashes.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfali, Hani Amara and Jonathan Spicer Writing by Angus McDowall Editing by Pravin Char and Frances Kerry)


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