A migrant attends to his belongings at a refugee centre in Tripoli, Libya. Picture: REUTERS/ISMAIL ZITOUNY
A migrant attends to his belongings at a refugee centre in Tripoli, Libya. Picture: REUTERS/ISMAIL ZITOUNY

Cairo/New York  — The UN  said on Thursday it was suspending operations at a refugee centre in Libya’s capital because it could become a target, while the UN envoy said a truce brokered by Russia and Turkey was holding “only in name”.

Artillery exchanges in Tripoli have significantly increased in recent days, UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told the Security Council in a briefing, causing an increase in civilian casualties due to indiscriminate shelling.

Since January 12, when forces aligned with Tripoli’s internationally recognised government and eastern based rivals led by Khalifa Haftar conditionally agreed to a truce, more than 110 violations had been recorded, Salame said.

Libya’s conflict has escalated since Haftar launched an offensive on Tripoli in April, upending UN-led peace plans.

International powers have supplied arms and air power, though there has been a lull in air strikes since Russia and Turkey called for a truce starting January 12, and international powers met in Berlin on January 19 trying to broker a ceasefire.

Haftar has received support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Russia and Egypt, while Turkey has recently stepped up its backing for the Tripoli government.

US ambassador Kelly Craft told the Security Council that “regrettably the promise of the Berlin conference is already under threat”. It was “past time” for those violating an arms embargo “to face real consequences”, she warned, without giving details.

The 15-member UN Security Council has been negotiating a British-drafted resolution to endorse the outcomes of the Berlin conference, but it was not immediately clear when the text could be put to a vote.

The UN says arms and fighters have continued to pour into Libya despite pledges in Berlin to uphold the arms embargo, while clashes have picked up on the ground with at least 18 civilians killed and three wounded in and around Tripoli since January 6.

“With recent developments on the ground, I regret to report that the truce holds only in name,” Salame said.

Military excercises

The closure of the centre for refugees and asylum seekers in central Tripoli may further restrict protection for migrants frequently subjected to abuse including torture and forced labour, both in and out of detention.

The UN's main refugee facility, which housed nearly 1,000 people, has been plagued with problems, reflecting the difficulties for international agencies working in a city controlled by armed groups.

“Unfortunately UNHCR was left with no choice but to suspend work at the facility after learning that training exercises, involving police and military personnel, are taking place just a few metres away from units housing asylum seekers and refugees,” Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR’s Libya head, said in a statement.

“We fear that the entire area could become a military target, further endangering the lives of refugees, asylum seekers and other civilians.”

Libya’s western coast has been one of the main departure points for migrants attempting dangerous sea crossings to Europe, though the number of departures has dropped sharply since mid-2017.

The country has a migrant population numbering hundreds of thousands, and several thousand are held in detention centres in or near Tripoli that have been left unguarded or hit by artillery or air strikes amid the fighting.

In July, an air strike hit a detention centre in Tripoli’s Tajoura district that was located in the same complex as an armed group’s vehicle repair workshop, killing at least 53 migrants.

Algeria had offered to host a reconciliation forum on Libya during a meeting of African leaders discussing ways to end the conflict, the African Union said on Thursday.