Mercenaries add to Libya’s security concerns
Tunis- An arms race between competing militias in war-torn Libya is among the many challenges facing Ghassan Salame, the United Nations’ new envoy to the country.
Salame, a former Lebanese culture minister, on June 20 was approved by the UN Security Council to replace Martin Kobler in the position. Salame will take over at a time of increased militarisation, with Libyan factions strengthening air power and bringing foreign mercenaries into the conflict.
“Foreign interference in Libya has taken a more direct form with the increasing involvement of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries,” a recent UN report stated. It added that such actions in the oil crescent were a direct threat to the security and economic stability of Libya.
“The mercenaries are involved in criminal activities, including trafficking in persons and drugs,” the report said. “Repeated attacks against individuals and property by foreign armed groups in the south of Libya have increased communities’ sense of vulnerability and distrust towards LNA [Libyan National Army] and the Misrata Third Force.”
Adding to the turmoil is an arms race between Islamist militias from Misrata and their adversaries in the east, the report said, which makes the Government of National Accord’s efforts to revitalise Libya’s national army less likely to succeed.
Increased militarisation has led to “actual and potential violations of the arms embargo,” the report noted, referencing 2011 UN sanctions against Libya that included an open-ended embargo on the supply of arms and military equipment.
“Armed groups from eastern Libya and Misrata have multiplied their air force capacity through transfers of materiel, the refurbishment of previously unserviceable aircraft and the expansion of military airbases,” the report said.
“The deployment and use of such materiel in the Libyan context has significantly increased insecurity and has undoubtedly led to additional casualties,” the report added. “This is notably the case for (armoured) vehicles and electronic interception equipment.”
The UN report stated there is evidence that militias were using pickup trucks to barter for weapons and ammunition and pay mercenaries, most of whom are from nearby countries such as Chad, Mali, Niger and Sudan.
These soldiers-for-hire have been active in Libya since the days of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi and became the centre of racial division during the 2011 revolution, when they were reportedly paid up to $1,000 a day to protect Qaddafi. Estimates put their numbers today at 6,000-30,000.
Stories of Qaddafi enlisting “hordes of black mercenaries” provoked a backlash against dark-skinned Libyans, who were suspected of being mercenaries or supporting the dictator because of their skin colour.
That prejudice played out in the town of Tawergha, 245km east of Tripoli, in 2011, when Misratan militias uprooted the town’s mostly dark-skinned inhabitants. Tawergha has been a ghost town since the attack.
Mercenaries have been paid in cash and weapons, which often end up fuelling conflicts in neighbouring countries.
Libya was thrown into chaos after Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011. The Libyan National Army, led by anti-Islamist strongman Khalifa Haftar, is battling Islamist extremists backed by Qatar and other Islamist-leaning Middle Eastern powers.
Islamist militias are also aligned with the UN-backed government in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.