By Heba Saleh
Residents face daily dangers as offensive by military strongman Haftar rages on.
Each day before she leaves her home in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, Khadija Boaishi checks the internet for reports of fighting or air raids on her route.
“We feel unsafe, but life goes on,” said Ms Boaishi, a university professor whose city has for seven months been under siege by forces loyal to military strongman Khalifa Haftar.
“I always have a bag packed in case something happens and I need to run. We hear shelling and it is frightening, especially for the children,” she told the Financial Times by telephone. “The problem is that this war has gone on too long.”
Gen Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, has been battling since April to seize Tripoli from militias aligned to the weak UN-backed government.
Yet neither side appears to be winning and it is the city’s 3m civilians who are increasingly being caught in the crossfire — killed or maimed in indiscriminate drone attacks, air raids and artillery barrages.
All the while, western powers have been accused of being too weak in their response to Gen Haftar’s aggression, despite it targeting the internationally recognised Tripoli-based administration.
But this week there were signs of a shift in Washington as the US for the first time explicitly called on the LNA to end its offensive.
Donald Trump had previously praised Gen Haftar for Libyan strongman’s “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.
But after talks with officials from the UN-backed government, the US state department said on Friday that halting the offensive would “prevent undue foreign interference, reinforce legitimate state authority and address the issues underlying the conflict”.
The US statement comes ahead of an international conference that is expected to take place in Berlin in the coming weeks and is intended to persuade foreign backers of the warring sides to respect a UN Security Council arms embargo on Libya.
Before Washington’s call for Gen Haftar to end the offensive, analysts believed there was little hope that external powers — including US allies Egypt and the UAE — would reduce their support to end what has become a proxy war.
But Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute think-tank at The Hague, said there could finally be diplomatic pressure on Gen Haftar.
“Haftar and his main foreign sponsors, the UAE and Egypt, cannot ignore it [the US statement],” he said. “They will have to show they are somehow taking the American request into consideration.”
The US state department singled out Moscow’s support for Gen Haftar, saying Washington “underscored support for Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s attempts to exploit the conflict against the will of the Libyan people”.
There have been reports of rising numbers of Russian fighters reported to have joined LNA forces on the outskirts of Tripoli.
Wolfram Lacher, a Libya specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs think-tank, said the reluctance by western governments to confront Gen Haftar’s foreign backers has been the most important reason “why there has not been a stronger international stand against this war”.
Media reported last week on a confidential UN report that accused the UAE, Jordan and Turkey, which backs militias supporting government-allied militias, of regular violations of the arms embargo.
The three nations “routinely and sometimes blatantly supplied weapons with little efforts to disguise the source”, the UN concluded. Other reports, citing diplomats, say Gen Haftar, who controls most of the oil-rich country, gets sophisticated arms from the UAE, including drones used to strike targets in the capital.
The Tripoli government, although formally the legitimate authority in the country, has little actual power and relies on militias for its defence.
It is backed by Qatar and Turkey, which is believed to supply it with drones and armoured vehicles.
Amnesty International has accused all the warring parties of putting civilians in harm’s way and of launching indiscriminate attacks. “Both sides are pretty bad at hitting legitimate targets,” said Donatella Rovera, an investigator at the human rights group.
A recent LNA air strike was reported to have killed three small girls in their Tripoli home near a militia facility. It came a few days after children were injured in an aerial attack on a riding club near a UN base in the capital.
Most of the more than 1,000 people who have died in the battle for Tripoli have been fighters, but scores of civilians, including dozens of African migrants in a detention on facility, have also been killed.
The only functioning airport in Tripoli has had to close because of repeated LNA strikes, and there is often shelling and missile attacks across front lines in the southern suburbs of the city.
Some argue that Gen Haftar and his backers are probably no longer aiming for a decisive military victory over the militias, but rather want to force the government into negotiations from a position of weakness.
“There appeared to have been a general international acceptance that Tripoli should be bombed and nobody demands a ceasefire and there are no condemnations of the violations of the arms embargo,” Mr Harchaoui said.
For the residents of Tripoli, this has meant living with war and air strikes. “People here feel we have been abandoned,” said Hala Bugaighis, a lawyer in Tripoli.
“The world is waiting until there is a winner and then they will support it. The international community can actually do something . . . but they are turning a blind eye.”
Heba Saleh – Cairo and North Africa Correspondent of the Financial Times.