Members of Libyan National Army get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya, April 13 2019. Picture: REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori
Members of Libyan National Army get ready before heading out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya, April 13 2019. Picture: REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tripoli — Fighting near Tripoli has killed 121 people since strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive earlier in April to take the Libyan capital, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Sunday.

In clashes between Haftar’s forces and those of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), both sides have proclaimed advances but neither appears to have taken a substantial lead on the ground in recent days.

With more than 560 people wounded since the fighting started on April 4, the WHO said it is sending more medical supplies and staff to Tripoli.

The UN organisation denounced “repeated attacks on health- care workers” and vehicles during the fighting, in messages on its Libya Twitter feed.

“Three medical personnel have been killed and five ambulances have been incapacitated by shrapnel,” the UN’s office for humanitarian affairs (OCHA) said in a Saturday statement.

The mounting violence has sparked global alarm about the oil-rich country that has been in turmoil since Nato-backed forces overthrew former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

In the chaos since, a bewildering array of militias have been seeking to take control, and fighting has flared again shortly before a conference had been scheduled to discuss Libya’s future, an event since cancelled.

Haftar, who leads the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), has pushed from his power base in the country’s east towards the Libyan capital in the west, the seat of the UN-backed unity government led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Egypt and Russia

Haftar has the support of key Gulf Arab states Egypt and Russia.

On Sunday he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, where the duo were “discussing the latest developments in Libya”, according to state media.

With gunfire now echoing through city blocks and tanks rumbling through towns and districts south of Tripoli, many panicked residents have fled their homes.

More than 13,500 people had been displaced and over 900 are now living in shelters, said OCHA.

Both sides have launched daily air raids and accuse each other of targeting civilians.

One air strike, which the GNA blames on Haftar’s forces, hit a school in Ain Zara, south of Tripoli, which has been the scene of violent clashes for days.

On Sunday, the UN mission in Libya warned that international humanitarian law “prohibits the bombing of schools, hospitals, ambulances and civilian areas”.

The mission warned that it would document all breaches in order to inform the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court.

The LNA, meanwhile, accused the Tripoli-based forces of an air raid targeting civilians in the Gasr Ben Ghachir region, 30km south of Tripoli.

GNA spokesperson Mohamed Gnounou said his forces had carried out 21 air strikes targeting LNA positions and supply lines between Friday and Saturday.

Attacking forces

Gnounou late on Saturday claimed “great advances on all fronts”, including in Al-Aziziya, a city about 50km south of Tripoli.

“We have not started this war,” he said, “but we will decide the time and place of its end.”

On the LNA’s side, meanwhile, spokesperson Ahmad al-Mesmari said the attacking forces were also moving forward on all fronts.

He reiterated his claim that terrorists and criminals were fighting on the side of the UN-backed GNA forces.

“The decision is no longer in Sarraj’s hands,” he said. “It is in the hands of terrorists now.”

The EU expressed its concern on Thursday at the involvement of terrorist and criminal elements in the fighting.

Sarraj denounced the “misinformation campaign by some parties that our forces include fighters belonging to terrorist organisations and groups”.

In a statement he strongly denied the claim and insisted it was the LNA attack on the capital that was “paving the way for dormant terrorist cells” to attack Libyans.