Libya says death toll from Tripoli clashes climbs to 61

Tripoli, Libya. (iStock)
Tripoli, Libya. (iStock)

The death toll from more than a week of fighting between armed groups in Tripoli has climbed to at least 61 people, including civilians, Libyan authorities said Tuesday, as the UN expressed alarm over the fate of detained migrants and Libyans already displaced by years of unrest.

The UN mission in Libya said late on Tuesday that the warring militias had agreed to a cease-fire, but it was unclear whether the violence had ended.

Fighting erupted last week when the Seventh Brigade, militias which hail from Tarhouna, a town about 60km south of Tripoli, attacked southern neighbourhoods of the capital. The Tripoli Revolutionaries' Brigades and the Nawasi Brigade - militias which support the UN-backed government - have come to the city's defence.

In addition to those killed, another 159 people, including civilians, have been wounded, while 12 people are still missing, according to Malek Merset, an official at the Health Ministry.

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Libya slid into chaos after the 2011 uprising that overthrew long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi and led to his death. The country is currently governed by rival authorities in Tripoli and the country's east, each of which are backed by an array of militias. Other armed groups have carved out fiefdoms across the country, with many profiting from smuggling and extortion.

On Tuesday, a shell landed inside a former US Embassy compound in Tripoli, setting off a fire that ignited a fuel tank, an embassy official said. No one was wounded, and the fire did not reach the building itself, said the official, who was not authorised to brief media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The embassy, which was relocated to Tunisia during heavy fighting in 2014, tweeted that the compound "was not impacted in today's fuel tank fire, which occurred in the vicinity."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has voiced concern about the impact of the fighting on migrants and internally displaced people. Spokesperson Liz Throssell said on Tuesday that some of the nearly 8 000 arbitrarily detained migrants are trapped in detention centres in areas where fighting has taken place, without access to food or medical treatment.

She said at least 21 civilians have been killed, including two women and two children, since August 26.

The UN Refugee Agency called on all sides to "spare civilians and civilian infrastructure and allow safe passage for those seeking refuge in safer areas."

The UN-backed government has declared a state of emergency in and around Tripoli. Delegations from the warring parties met for talks on Tuesday in the town of Zawiya, west of Tripoli.

The UN mission later tweeted that the warring parties had reached a cease-fire agreement to "end hostilities, protect civilians, safeguard public and private property" and reopen Tripoli's airport.

"Today does not aim to fix all the Libyan capital's security problems. It seeks to agree on a broader framework on the way to start addressing these issues," UN envoy Ghassan Salameh said.

Issandr el-Amrani, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said there is a risk of other militias entering the fighting, including powerful groups from the city of Misrata.

He said the fighting could also empower forced loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the leader of a powerful militia in the east that is allied with the government there. Haftar has long opposed the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

The Tripoli government "is losing ground and the little legitimacy it has," el-Amrani said. "Escalation of fighting could mean that the government loses control the capital."

Mohamed Buisier, an analyst and former political adviser to Haftar, said the fighting was expected as armed groups in Tripoli were getting "larger portions of financial incentives."

"This is a normal thing after years of failure," he said. "We are in a new phase where nobody can strip the militias from their arms. Libya needs an international peacekeeping force," he said.

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