Derna battle enters decisive stage, raising fears of civilian casualties
TUNIS - On June 13, 2015, forces of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna crushed the Islamic State (ISIS) and expelled it from the eastern Libya town. Since then, the mujahideen, ideologically closer to al-Qaeda, have run the town with an iron fist, despite efforts by the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, to take it.
While the rest of the east fell under Haftar’s control, Derna stubbornly remained outside his reach. It was held out against the LNA’s siege thanks to the highly defensible terrain and the delivery of boatloads of arms and supplies from supporters, mainly in the western Libyan city of Misrata.
However, that era is coming to an end. The battle for Derna has entered a decisive stage. It is no longer a question of if the LNA will take it but when. It is also a question of how many civilians will die in the fighting and how much suffering others will have to endure before the town falls.
In early May, LNA forces, which had occupied the high ground around Derna, entered the town. By June 5, the LNA claimed to control 75% of Derna, including the port.
Previous LNA claims about victories or territorial gains have been notoriously inaccurate and the mujahideen, who renamed themselves the Derna Protection Force, said they had retaken some areas.
However, there is no question the LNA is winning. Getting the final 25%, though, will not be easy given how densely built-up the downtown area is.
“Now the real battle starts,” said one Derna observer. “The fighting will be street-to-street, house-to-house. There will be snipers on the rooftops. It is not going to end this week, not even this month. It could take much longer than people imagine.”
Comparisons are being made with the LNA’s bitter battle to take Benghazi, which lasted more than three years and destroyed the centre of the city. However, Benghazi was a much bigger battle. It is well more than ten times the size of Derna.
A better comparison might be the battle that freed Sirte from ISIS in 2016. It took six months, while the forces of the Tripoli-based Presidency Council that carried out the operation — mostly from Misrata — had the advantage of air support from the United States, plus a relative absence of civilians.
The United States is still targeting terrorists in Libya. On June 6, a US air strike south of Bani Walid killed an ISIS commander and three of his relatives. However, the Americans are keeping well away from the Derna conflict.
The LNA has its own air force but it is notoriously inaccurate. It can, however, call on support from the Egyptians and probably the Emiratis. Air strikes have continued since the LNA made its way into Derna but its numbers are significantly reduced.
Hitting civilians in Derna is politically dangerous for the LNA leadership. It could lead to an indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Aware of this, Haftar has constantly called for civilians to be protected. Nonetheless, civilians are being killed.
The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said at least 17 civilians were killed in the last two weeks of May. Since then, there have been reports of civilian deaths although they are difficult to confirm.
The number of civilians left in the centre of Derna is unknown. Pro-Haftar sources in the town put the number at between 5,000-10,000. Others say it is much higher.
Those still there and the population in areas under LNA control face a massive humanitarian crisis. Food and other supplies are not getting in and the town’s only remaining hospital closed after being hit by shells. Many have tried to flee but the mujahideen have been accused of preventing people from doing so because they want to use them as human shields.
The international community has given up calling for a ceasefire. Such a plan never made it into last month’s Paris agreement between the country’s rival leaders. The calls are now for “restraint.”
Expressing its concern about Derna, the UN Security Council reminded the LNA and the mujahideen of their obligations under international law to protect civilians. Earlier, the UNSMIL called for a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian organisations to reach civilians in Derna.
There are deep divisions over the battle for Derna in Libya. The anti-Haftar camp, led largely by State Council President Khalid al-Mishri, angrily condemned it. The LNA speaks excitedly of “liberation just around the corner.”