As clashes resume, situation threatens to spin out of control in Tripoli

What Salame did not say was that it was the UNSMIL that had, in early 2016, given the militias the job of securing Tripoli for the PC.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Libyan security forces patrol near the site of an attack on a checkpoint in Zliten, 170km east of Tripoli, on August 23. (AFP)
Downward spiral. Libyan security forces patrol near the site of an attack on a checkpoint in Zliten, 170km east of Tripoli, on August 23. (AFP)

TUNIS - Despite efforts of the UN mission in Libya and the internationally backed Presidency Council (PC), led by Fayez al-Sarraj, to end the crisis in Tripoli, there is concern that the fighting in the capital is out of control and won’t end until one side is totally defeated.

“Every day it gets worse. It’s getting more violent,” said a businessman who fled fighting in Benghazi three years ago for Tripoli and who said he was now thinking of returning. “Everyone is staying at home, afraid of what is going to happen.”

After clashes erupted in late August in Tripoli’s southern suburbs between local militias and forces from Tarhouna, 65km south-east of the capital, UN Special Envoy Ghassan Salame managed to bring about a ceasefire but it did not last.

That is because the Tarhouna-based 7th Brigade has yet to achieve its aim to “cleanse” Tripoli of local militias that have become the real power but are considered little more than mafias operating a protection racket.

Salame said as much in briefing the UN Security Council on September 5. The security setup, he explained, enabled the militias to act as predators, kidnapping, torturing and killing people despite supposedly being under the authority of the PC’s Interior Ministry.

What Salame did not say was that it was the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) that had, in early 2016, given the militias the job of securing Tripoli for the PC.

In a clear breach of the ceasefire, rockets were fired September 11 at Mitiga International Airport, just east of Tripoli’s city centre. It was attacked again September 20 and remains closed. Far more serious was fighting that had broken out September 18 along Airport Road, which leads to the old Tripoli International Airport, destroyed in fighting four years ago.

The clashes pitted one of the Tripoli militias against a radical militia from Misrata allied to the 7th Battalion and is an example of the complexities and convoluted self-interest that drive the Libyan crisis.

The leaders of the two groups — the Central Security Force in Tripoli’s Abu Sleem district and the mainly Misratan Somoud Brigade — were once allies. Abdelghani Al-Kikli (known as “Ghneiwa”) and Misrata’s maverick commander Salah Badi fought together four years ago when Badi attacked the old airport.

However, with the arrival in March 2016 of the PC, they split and, in May 2017, Ghneiwa’s forces and other militias drove Badi and other hard-line Misratan and quasi-Islamist forces out of Tripoli.

Badi wants to destroy Ghneiwa and his force and, it is said, take over the strategic Abu Sleem district. It has also been reported that he was controlled by the 7th Battalion, itself run by Tarhouna’s powerful Kaniat family, and that it was the Kaniats who gave him the green light to attack because of their dissatisfaction with the post-ceasefire security arrangements drawn up by Salame and Sarraj.

The 7th Battalion is supposedly under the authority of the PC’s Interior Ministry, as are the Tripoli militias fighting the battalion. Badi and his Somoud Brigade want to overthrow the PC and restore the pro-Islamist Libya Dawn regime that controlled Tripoli from 2014-16.

The 7th Battalion is also supported by another Tarhouna force, the 22nd Brigade, which is part of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The 22nd Brigade has been fighting with Badi against Ghneiwa on the Airport Road.

Since the fighting started August 26, scores of people, including civilians, have been killed, hundreds wounded and some 20,000 residents in southern Tripoli had fled their homes. The capital appears to have started going the destructive way of Benghazi four years ago.

It is unclear how Salame and the PC are going to rescue the ceasefire. Salame has repeatedly warned he would publicly name anyone breaching the ceasefire but has not done so. There were warnings that individuals involved would be put on the international sanctions list.

Salame demanded that Badi and his forces stop fighting and warned Ghneiwa that, as a signatory to the ceasefire, he had to stick to it, the implication being that he would be sanctioned and possibly indicted by the International Criminal Court. This has had no effect.

Efforts to revive the ceasefire continued but the situation has seemed beyond Salame’s or the PC’s ability to resolve. The well-armed and well-organised 7th Battalion and its allies clearly feel they are in control and can take Tripoli.

Badi had reportedly captured a major camp in southern Tripoli from Ghneiwa’s forces and they and the 7th Battalion were poised to strike Abu Sleem. A radical transformation of who controls what and where in Tripoli appeared to be on the cards and could change the national political picture.

“I would not be surprised if Haftar made a surprise visit to the airport, just to show that he can,” said a Libyan analyst. He was referring to the fact that the LNA-linked 22nd Brigade controls Tripoli International Airport.

Italian plans for a summit in Sicily in November on Libya forge ahead but, by then, it could be a very different Libya.