Tripoli’s intra-militia fighting is morphing into a full-blown civil war as indiscriminate shelling spreads across the city and new parties join in.
A ceasefire agreement brokered by the United Nations on 4 September collapsed on Thursday after the warring parties resumed hostilities in western and southern Tripoli. Heavy fighting there killed 11 people on Thursday and 15 on Friday, according to the city’s field hospital in the deadliest round of violence since the fighting erupted in late August.
Heavy fighting continued yesterday and into this morning with eyewitness reports of tanks, howitzers, Gard missiles and mortars being used by both parties inside residential areas. Residents took to social media to share photos of missiles landing on houses, schools and hospitals.
The interior ministry of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) today called for safe corridors in southern Tripoli to allow the evacuation of civilians, after the Libyan Red Crescent struggled to reach families stranded in areas affected by the war, most of which lacking electricity and other basic services.
A barrage of Grad missiles last night landed in Mitiga, the city’s only functioning airport, which remains closed since 11 September.
Misrata joins the attackers
In a dramatic twist, the Misratan military force known as ‘Bunyan Marsous’, which is not only on GNA’s payroll but have also served as ground forces of the US-led campaign that forced the Islamic State out of Sirte in 2016, today have joined the attack against pro-GNA militias in Tripoli.
A televised statement featuring leaders of the Bunyan including Bashir Qadhi, Muhammed Ghusri, Salem Abu Rawi and Ibrahim bin Rajib, has declared Bunyan’s support for the military campaign against Tripoli militias, and warned against attacks on Misrata’s forces fighting in western Tripoli. The statement called on all Misratan “rebels” to "immediately join their brothers on the fronts”.
Sources have told this website that reinforcements have arrived to both sides from areas outside Tripoli including Gharyan, Sabratha, Surman, Zawya, Misrata, Zliten and Sirte. “This is not a matter of clashes between militias,” Fayez Sarraj, GNA’s prime minister, told a meeting of Tripoli mayors last week. “This is much bigger than that and many actors have been supporting the attack on Tripoli in a bid to overthrow the GNA”.
Khalifa Hifter, the general commander of eastern Libya’s Libyan National Army (LNA), made a televised speech on Thursday denying any links to the fighting in Tripoli. “We categorically deny any links to the clashes in Tripoli and none of those forces is linked to us in any way”.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is understood to be lobbying support for punitive actions against some of the warlords which may include sanctions and international arrest warrants. On Thursday, UNSMIL has warned two of the warlords that their actions amounted to war crimes. A rally demanding the mission to implement its threat and stop the violence has taken place earlier today outside UNSMIL’s HQ in Janzour’s Palm City.
The military situation and reasons behind violence
Barracks and positions in southern and western Tripoli changed hands several times over the last few weeks to the two fighting camps. The first, is a loose alliance of Tripoli-based militias operating in name only under the GNA in exchange for salaries and political support. Its core group is the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), Tripoli’s defacto anti-crime and counter-terrorism force which also happens to be the military wing of Quietist Salafism in western Libya.
The second is a group of tribal militias from Tarhouna (also known as the Seventh Brigade) backed by others from Misrata led by Salah-Eddin Badi.
Tarhouna’s tribal militias aim to expand the tribe’s territory to include Tripoli’s southern districts of Qasr bin Ghashir, Salah-Eddin, Abu Saleem and al-Hadhbah which it considers to be an extension of the tribe’s historic heartland, and whose inhabitants come mostly from the same tribe.
By securing a foothold inside Tripoli, the tribe seeks to increase its political clout and impose its militias as security providers in exchange for generous payments from the GNA equal to those given to the Tripoli-based militias. Another objective is controlling the access to Tripoli’s International Airport which is currently being rebuilt after it had been destroyed by the civil war of 2014.
Salah-Eddin Badi’s forces are politically aligned with what was known as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Tribal fighters from Misrata make up this group’s main firepower, but it also includes jihadis from Misrata, Zliten, Zawya, Benghazi and Darnah. Badi's group have two objectives: capturing Mitiga airport to free fellow jihadis detained there by the SDF - many of whom are Islamic State terrorists - and overthrowing the GNA to replace it with an Islamist-leaning government.