By Kim Sengupta
Hundreds Libyan have been killed and tens of thousands displaced in the last six months.
The opposing sides in Libya’s civil war, backed by their foreign state sponsors, are carrying out attacks on civilians in heavily populated areas in what are likely to be war crimes, says Amnesty International.
A report published this week, which the human rights group says is the first detailed investigation into systematic violence on both sides of the frontline.
The report has charted the deaths and maiming of more than a hundred people and the displacement of tens of thousands of others by both the forces of Khalifa Haftar and the UN backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in the last six months.
Airstrikes, a large proportion of them carried out using drones, and missile and artillery barrages have hit hospitals, schools, refugee centres and forced the closure of Mitiga airport, the sole remaining air link for the capital Tripoli.
There has been a sharp rise in the numbers of child casualties – in the last three weeks Unicef reports that three children, along with two women, were killed when a car was hit on a highway 16 km (10 miles) from Tripoli.
Three sisters and their mother were injured when their home south of the capital was hit by a rocket.
While a 13-year-old child lost her life and five others were injured when their school was hit by shellfire in the town of Janzour, 18 km (11 miles) from the capital.
Eight years after the death of the country’s former dictator, Libya is in a state of unending strife.
Haftar, a former general of the fromer regime, has now promoted himself to Field Marshal, is backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Russia, and it is claimed, covertly by France.
Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s GNA is supported by the UN, Turkey and the Italians, the former colonial power in Libya which has been the most constant western presence there since the war.
The US also officially supports the Sarraj government, but Donald Trump is accused of giving the green light to Mr Haftar in a phone call in April as his Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an assault on Tripoli.
Both Haftar and the GNA, as well as a number of powerful militias, have received a steady supply of weapons from abroad despite a UN embargo in place since 2011.
The situation in Libya is expected to feature in talks between NATO foreign ministers next month and the leaders’ summit in London in December.
Amnesty International visited both sides of the conflict in and around Tripoli, Tajoura, Ain Zara, Qasr Bin Ghashir and Tarhouna and interviewed 156 residents, including attack survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims, local officials, medical workers and members of militias.
The report stated “some of the attacks documented were either indiscriminate or disproportionate – meaning they violated fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and could amount to war crimes.
In other cases, the presence of fighters at or near civilian homes and medical facilities endangered civilians there. Children as young as two-years-old playing outside their homes, mourners attending a funeral, and ordinary people going about their daily activities were among those unlawfully killed or injured”.
Amnesty lists examples of attacks on civilians by both sides. Haftar’s LNA carried out a rocket attack, it says, in Tripoli’s Abu Salim district on 16 April during which a “salvo of six notoriously inaccurate ground-launched ‘Grad’ rockets rained down over several city blocks, killing eight civilians, injuring at least four more, and leaving the survivors badly traumatised”, the report states.
“What kind of war is this, killing civilians, families, in their homes? What can we do? May God help us,” one woman told the human rights group. Her husband, a 56-year-old father of six, was killed when a rocket struck his bedroom where he was resting after returning home from playing football.
A GNA artillery attack “on the densely populated civilian neighbourhood of Qasr bin Ghashir on 14 May 2019 hit a three-storey building, killing at least five civilians and injuring more than a dozen. Many people were moving about the area at the time to attend the funeral of a well-known neighbour”.
“I was at home and my brother was standing outside on the street. The strike was massive; it sent a vehicle flying on top of another vehicle and for a moment everything was black. I rushed outside and there were many neighbours dead and injured on the ground; there were severed body parts. It was a shocking sight. Then we found my brother; he had injuries everywhere; he died. I couldn’t believe it,” said the brother of 19-year-old Ahmad Fathi al-Muzughi.
Mitiga Airport is now closed after being repeatedly targeted by LNA attacks. Nearby civilian homes and a school have also been struck in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks, says the report. Craters and munitions fragments at several of these strike sites point to the use of unguided, large explosive weapons.
LNA attacks have also damaged or destroyed several ambulances and field hospitals, says the report.
Medical workers and facilities – including those treating sick or wounded fighters – have special protection under international humanitarian law and should not be targeted.
Amnesty claims that GNA fighters have used field hospitals and medical facilities for military purposes, thereby rendering them vulnerable to attacks.
A missile strike on a field hospital near the closed Tripoli International Airport on 27 July this year killed five medics and rescuers and injured eight more.
Based on Blue Arrow 7 munition fragments found at the site and other evidence, Amnesty analysts believe that the strike was launched from a Chinese Wing Loong drone – which the UAE has been operating on behalf of the LNA.
Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser on arms and military operations, said: “Scores of civilians have been killed and injured as both sides use everything from Gaddafi-era unguided rockets to modern drone-launched guided missiles in attacks that could amount to war crimes.
The international community must uphold the UN arms embargo, which Turkey, the UAE, Jordan and other countries have flagrantly violated.”
Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser, added: “The ground investigation revealed a systematic disregard for international law fuelled by the continued supply of weapons to both sides in violation of a UN arms embargo.”
Ted Chaiban, Unicef’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “These recent attacks are a reminder that children in Libya continue to pay first and most as violence continues in a number of areas in the western parts of the country.
Children are not a target and should be protected at all times wherever they are. Parties to the conflict must refrain from attacks on civilian infrastructure, including people’s homes, schools, hospitals and medical facilities.”
Kim Sengupta – Diplomatic, Defence, and Security Editor for The Independent. He has reported from conflicts across the globe including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, the Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia, Kosovo, Mali, Sudan, Somalia, Kashmir, Israel, Gaza and Northern Ireland, as well as covering diplomatic issues in the UK and abroad.