By Nick Paton Walsh
Shelling hits the airport. Hospitals get caught in the crossfire. Migrants huddle in detention facilities between warring militias. And standoffs between factions with impenetrable grudges hold, making a resolution seem beyond distant.
This has been much of Libya’s curse since the 2011 unseating of Gadhafi, but the past week has been a particularly ghastly episode. Militias holding parts of the capital, Tripoli — who are technically loyal to the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) — have been attacked by another armed group known as the 7th Brigade, from Tarhouna, to the capital’s southeast. All sides accuse the other of corruption, and maintain their grip will restore order.
Yet the opposite is obviously proving the case. Militias have been fighting or squabbling, often at a slow-burn rate, for control of parts of the city for years. The distant thump of explosions or intermittent gunfire is far from abnormal across the city’s skyline. But this uptick has led the GNA to denounce the fighting — among militias that are technically loyal to it — and declare a state of emergency.
Ongoing clashes have left at least 47 people dead and more than 140 wounded, a Libyan ambulance official told CNN. Prisoners broke out of a jail during the unrest on Sunday, with local media reporting 400 had escaped, although a GNA official claimed it was just dozens.
Yet this is a smaller part of the wider problem. Nationwide, Libya is split yet again. In the east, General Khalifa Haftar, who decades ago helped Gadhafi’s original coup, has consolidated control around the city of Benghazi. Another militia, the Misrata Brigades, dominate a port to Benghazi’s west.
There are further fiefdoms around the oil-rich nation — Libya has been reduced by the ongoing violence to an economic slump, and people queue for hours outside banks for the most basic of services.
To add to that, ISIS fighters — who gained substantial control around the town of Sirte and along Libya’s massive Mediterranean coastline until a 2015 offensive against them — remain a threat. Only last week, a US airstrike killed an ISIS militant near Bani Walid, the US military said.
In Tripoli, the GNA’s path has been far from straightforward. It first arrived as something of a UN and Western-backed implant, and found itself often restricted to its base in the port. It has since grown in power, and the Libya Dawn faction that formerly controlled much of the capital has stepped back. Yet some of Dawn’s loyalists are said to be assisting the 7th Brigade’s offensive. That old rivalry, too, persists.
If you have kept up, then you may understand the scale of the challenge ahead for UN negotiators as they seek calm, or even a short-term peace. None of this complexity softens the agony for Libya’s people, who have seen their oil-rich dictatorship flounder as the revolution brought the warring rule of the gun rather than a simple switch to elected leaders. Or the plight of the thousands of migrants, who risked all in Africa’s deserts to reach the coastline, but now languish in Libya’s jails.
Nor does it improve the confidence of European leaders who depend upon Libya’s government — and its coastguard — to stop the migrant trade across the Mediterranean.
Photo: A young Libyan man inspects the interior of a mosque in Benghazi on February 9, 2018, after it was hit in a twin bomb attack.
Nick Paton Walsh – Senior International Correspondent for CNN International, based in London. Nick focuses on stories from the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan and the surrounding region.