At least 32 people killed and 159 more wounded in the clashes amid fears of escalating violence in the country divided between rival governments.
Deadly clashes broke out between rival Libyan militias in the centre of Tripoli late on Friday and into the early hours of Saturday, raising fears of escalating violence in the country divided between rival administrations jostling to wrest control of the oil-rich North African nation.
The health ministry said on Sunday that 32 people were killed in Saturday’s violence and 159 were injured, up from a ministry source’s previous estimate of 23 deaths and 87 injured.
Armed fighters backing the United Nations-recognised government based in Tripoli and the forces loyal to rival Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha have been engaged in the gun fighting threatening the civilian population, with health officials urging for a truce to evacuate people and to provide safe passage to aid the injured.
Tensions have simmered since Bashagha was appointed prime minister in February by the eastern parliament based in Tobruk, with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the head of the UN-recognised Government of National Unity (GNU), refusing to cede power.
The UN-backed government says it has taken control of the capital after the worst fighting in two years.
Here is what we know so far.
What were the casualties?
At least 32 people were killed and 150 more were wounded in the clashes, according to the country’s health ministry.
Among those killed was Mustafa Baraka, a comedian known for his social media videos mocking militias and corruption. Baraka died after he was shot in his chest, said Malek Merset, an emergency services spokesman.
Merset said emergency services were still trying to evacuate wounded people and civilians trapped in the fighting.
The health ministry said 140 people had been wounded while 64 families had to be evacuated from areas around the fighting. It said hospitals and medical centres in the capital were shelled, and ambulance teams were barred from evacuating civilians, in acts that “amount to war crimes”.
Who are the fighting parties?
Two rival militias were involved in the violence, one affiliated with Dbeibah and the other backing the rival government of Bashagha, whose administration has the backing of eastern-based renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Bashagha’s attempt on Saturday to take over in Tripoli was his second such attempt since May.
Witnesses told the Reuters news agency that forces aligned with Bashagha tried to take territory in Tripoli from several directions on Saturday, but his main military convoy turned back towards the coastal city of Misrata before reaching the capital.
Sources told Al Jazeera that the militia backing Dbeibah tried to take over the headquarters of Haitham al-Tajouri forces, which back Bashagha, leading to the exchange of heavy weaponry.
What’s behind the violence?
Tensions have risen after Bashagha’s appointment as prime minister in February amid calls for Dbeibah to cede power.
Dbeibah’s GNU, installed as part of a UN-led peace process following a previous round of violence, said the latest clashes in Tripoli were triggered by fighters aligned with Bashagha firing on a convoy in the capital while other pro-Bashagha units had massed outside the city.
It accused Bashagha of backing out of talks to resolve the crisis. Bashagha says the GNU’s mandate has expired. But he has so far been unable to take office in Tripoli, as Dbeibah has insisted he will hand over power only to an elected government.
A statement from forces supporting Dbeibah said it carried out an operation to push back a security threat in Tripoli caused by Haitham al-Tajouri’s forces. The statement said the operation aimed to defend the city and its residents and avoid a long period of tensions and clashes.
What has the reaction been?
Turkey, which has a military presence around Tripoli and helped forces in the city fight off an eastern assault in 2020, called for an immediate ceasefire and said “we continue to stand by our Libyan brothers”.
The United States ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, said in a statement that Washington “condemns” the surge in violence, urging an “immediate ceasefire and UN-facilitated talks between the conflicting parties”.
The municipal council of Tripoli blamed the ruling political class for the deteriorating situation in the capital, and urged the international community to “protect civilians in Libya”.
Omar Weheba, a city official, said civil society institutions in Tripoli strongly condemned the armed clashes and held “the participating parties responsible for shedding civilian blood, intimidating security, and destroying private and public property”.
Are there fears of escalation?
Emadeddin Badi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, warned that the violence could quickly escalate. “Urban warfare has its own logic, it’s harmful both to civilian infrastructure and to people, so even if it isn’t a long war, this conflict will be very destructive as we have already seen,” he told the AFP news agency.
He added that the fighting could strengthen Haftar and those close to him. “They stand to benefit from western Libya divisions and have a better negotiating position once the dust settles.”
How did Libya fall apart?
Libya’s fault lines surfaced as local groups took different positions in the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi.
An attempted democratic transition slid out of control as armed groups built local power bases and coalesced around rival political factions, seizing control of economic assets.
After a battle for Tripoli in 2014, one faction including most parliament members moved east and recognized Khalifa Haftar as military chief, eventually setting up a parallel government.
A United Nations-backed agreement led to a new, internationally recognized government in Tripoli, but eastern factions spurned the deal and Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) attacked the capital in 2019.
The squabbling armed factions that controlled western Libya came together to back the Tripoli government against Haftar and they repelled his assault in 2020 with help from Turkey, leading to a ceasefire and a new UN-backed peace process.
How did the latest dispute unfold?
The peace process brought in a new government of national unity under Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah with a mandate to oversee national elections scheduled for December 2021, but there was no agreement on rules for the vote and the process collapsed.
In eastern Libya, the parliament declared Dbeibah’s government illegal and appointed a new one under Fathi Bashagha. Dbeibah rejected its moves, saying he would cede power only after an election.
Meanwhile the western Libya factions that had joined together against Haftar were again jostling for position in Tripoli with occasional skirmishes, and some saw Bashagha as their best bet for advancement.
Bashagha tried to enter Tripoli soon after he was appointed in March but pro-Dbeibah factions blocked his convoy. He tried again in May, but left Tripoli after a brief shootout.
As the months passed, alliances and coalitions among the Tripoli factions shifted as both Dbeibah and Bashagha tried to court key players. On the streets of Tripoli, armed forces rubbed up against each other’s territory.
When fighting erupted between two groups on Friday night, factions aligned with Bashagha began mounting what looked like coordinated attacks in a new effort to install him in the capital. But the move failed, apparently leaving Dbeibah more firmly entrenched.
What are the chances of a political deal?
The powerful eastern faction of Haftar and parliament speaker Aguila Saleh has shown little willingness to compromise on its goal of removing Dbeibah and installing Bashagha.
However, with Bashagha seeming unable to build a coalition of western factions that can install him in Tripoli, they may have to think again.
Turkey’s continued military presence around Tripoli, where it maintained air bases with drones after helping fend off the eastern assault in 2020, means another Haftar offensive against the capital looks very unlikely for now.
Some politicians have raised the idea of another attempt to form a new government that all sides can accept — something Dbeibah would likely try to block.
Meanwhile, diplomacy has stalled and agreement on how to hold elections as a lasting solution to Libya’s political disputes looks further away than ever.
International efforts to broker an agreement have been hampered by disagreement among the countries involved and among local factions that many Libyans believe want to avoid elections in order to hang on to power.
Many of Libya’s population of nearly 7 million fear that means that however the next period of negotiations and positioning play out, it will only be followed by another outbreak of violence.
How does it affect Libya’s oil?
Control over revenues from Libya’s main export, its oil output of up to 1.3 million barrels per day, has long been the biggest prize for all the main political and military factions.
Groups have repeatedly shut down output before as a tactic to put pressure on the government in Tripoli, where all foreign oil sales revenue is channeled into the central bank through international agreements.
Forces aligned with Haftar, whose sway extends across much of the territory that includes main oil fields and export terminals, have been responsible for the biggest shutdowns in recent years.
The last shutdown, which reduced exports by about half, ended when Dbeibah replaced the National Oil Corporation head with an ally of Haftar — a move some saw as an effort to court the eastern commander and make him more open to a political deal.
That may be enough to stop another shutdown while pro-Bashagha factions work out their next move. But with Libya’s political tangle so far from resolution, there seems little likelihood that oil exports will stay untouched for very long.