New clashes in Tripoli bring chaos, threaten Sarraj government
For the second time this year, fighting between rival militias in and near Tripoli has brought chaos to the capital and threatened to bring down the internationally backed — if locally derided — Government of National Accord.
The attacks triggered international expressions of concern. “These attempts to weaken the legitimate Libyan authorities and hinder the ongoing political process are not acceptable,” Washington, Paris, Rome and London said in a statement released September 1 by the French Foreign Ministry.
“We are calling on the armed groups to immediately stop all military action and warn those who seek to undermine stability, in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya, that they will be made accountable for it.”
The main militia in Tarhuna, 80km south-east of Tripoli, overran positions of the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) in the city’s southern suburbs.
TRB commander Haitham Tajouri and other militia leaders had gone to Saudi Arabia to perform haj. The Kaniat brigade tried to take advantage of their absence, hoping to seize the airport and prevent them from returning, thus becoming the new military power in Tripoli.
Tajouri was quickly back in Libya, though, and on August 29 his forces recaptured a major army camp in southern Tripoli that the Kaniat brigade had seized but then lost it a short while later. Despite air strikes against the brigade in Tripoli and Tarhuna, it has held on to its gains.
Although based in Tarhuna, Kaniat’s grip had extended into Tripoli’s southern suburbs around Tripoli International Airport. It regards these as its rightful territory, a view contested by Tripoli militias.
The Kaniat brigade has a reputation for extreme brutality. It has been accused of killings in Tarhuna since 2012 that established it as the master of the town. A source in Tarhuna said the brigade issues a warning only once to those it opposes or it wants to bring into line. If they do not obey immediately, they are killed.
Led by seven brothers from the Kani family with Islamist leanings, the brigade allegedly received funding from the former parliament, the General National Congress. There have been allegations of protection payments made by merchants in Tarhuna and in southern Tripoli’s Kremia district.
There have been growing fears of a security implosion in Tripoli with militias attacking each other over power, territory and how much money each has acquired.
Questions are being asked whether there is more to the Kaniat offensive than meets the eye — whether it is being backed by someone else — and from where it is getting its arms and men.
One source, in Tripoli’s south-eastern suburb of Ain Zara, much of which the brigade seized from the TRB on August 27, noted that Kaniat forces were much larger and much better equipped than had previously been the case. “It’s a very strong army. It’s not like Kaniat before,” the source said. They had reinforcements from elsewhere, he added, but he did not know from where.
Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Presidency Council, ordered its military commanders in western Libya to end the revolt. That, however, can only complicate matters. The only two effective commanders are from Zintan and Misrata and draw their respective forces from both places. It would, therefore, mean bringing Zintani and Misratan militias into Tripoli, a move unacceptable to the militias there — and probably Tripoli’s residents.
The Kaniat has announced that it will not give up “until the capital is freed.”
For both it and the TRB, this seems to be turning into an existential battle. Even if Kaniat is persuaded to withdraw, the TRB and Tajouri are bound to see it as a permanent threat. He will not feel secure until Kaniat is destroyed.
The fighting is unlikely to stop until one side is seen as defeated. That could mean much damage in Tripoli.