By Ghaith Shennib and Hatem Mohareb
Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar is close to capturing the last major city out of his control in the oil-rich east, giving him a potential boost in the scramble for power before the fractured country heads to possible elections this year.
After weeks of heavy fighting left dozens dead, a unit loyal to Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army said it had advanced early Monday on two districts in the south of Derna, the last pockets held by a rival militia comprising Islamists and former rebels.
“If we take these two areas then the whole of Derna will be under the control of the LNA,” said Omran al-Hamali, a spokesman for Brigade 302, which is fighting in the coastal city.
The battle for Derna, home to 125,000 people, has overshadowed last month’s French-brokered agreement between Haftar and a rival United Nations-backed government in Tripoli to work toward presidential and parliamentary elections in December.
Haftar has billed the Derna campaign as an all-out effort to crush an Islamist stronghold. Though Derna is not home to any oil facilities and holds little strategic value, Haftar says its capture would help bring stability to a nation that’s known nothing but chaos since Moammar Qaddafi’s 2011 ouster and killing.
His opponents say the assault is exacerbating tribal tensions and could complicate international efforts to unify the North African country, where parallel governments and institutions vie for power in the east and west.
“If Derna falls into Haftar’s hands, that means the country is slipping dangerously toward splitting,” said Ramadan Mitig, who heads the civil society commission in the western port city of Misrata and is active in the national reconciliation effort. “It’s now the last thin thread that barely holds Libya together as one state.”
Since Qaddafi’s ouster, Libya has been carved up among dozens of rival militias. A UN-brokered unity deal concluded in 2015 failed to heal the country’s divisions. The government it parachuted into Tripoli, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, struggled to impose its authority. A new UN envoy appointed last year unveiled a revised plan, but progress has been painstaking.
The conflict is complicated by the involvement of outside powers seeking to bolster their regional clout and ensure Islamist militants don’t take root amid the chaos. Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have, to varying degrees, backed Haftar, whose LNA rose to prominence by targeting Islamists.
His forces intermittently besieged Derna over the past year, before launching their attack before the Paris conference.
Winning Derna “is going to put another feather in his cap and further his aim of emerging as the dominant player in Libya,” said Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to the North African country. “But if he means what he says about his commitment to elections, then he still has an uphill task of persuading a vast majority of Libyans to back him.”
In Derna, as in many parts of Libya, that will be no easy feat.
Water and electricity have been largely cut off in the city. Phone services are erratic and food and medicine are running low. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it began delivering food with local partners over the weekend to more than 6,000 people inside Derna and more in nearby towns.
Those who remain fear a repeat of what happened in Benghazi, the eastern birthplace of the 2011 uprising. Many families who originally hail from western Libya were forced to flee Benghazi and say they had properties confiscated by LNA leaders.
The United Nations warned on Friday that the humanitarian situation was deteriorating and fighters were arbitrarily detaining civilians or preventing them from fleeing.
“My biggest fear is not the invasion, but what comes after,” Mansour al-Hasadi, Derna’s representative at the Supreme Council of State, said. ““There’s no guarantee that there won’t be executions on ethnic or political grounds.”
— With assistance by Tarek El-Tablawy