US stands with Tripoli government after military base massacre

Sunday 28/05/2017
Violent spiral. US Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, on May 23. (Reuters)

Tunis - The United States is supporting the embattled leader of the UN-backed government in Tripoli after an attack by sus­pected Islamists killed as many as 141 people, including 70 soldiers, in southern Libya, escalating the con­flict and breaking up an alliance be­tween government factions.
The attack was carried out by the Islamist Third Force militia, a group of Islamists that was previously loy­al to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
US Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, chief of US forces in Africa, and US Ambassador to Libya Peter Bodde flew to an airbase in Tripoli on May 23 for a news confer­ence with the GNA leader Fayez al- Sarraj. He announced the country was entering a “decisive stage” to ending the 6-year civil war.
“We reached the stage of decisive­ness and we will not waver in crack­ing down on those who stir conflict and hamper stability and fail the hopes and desires of our people in reconciliation and entente,” Sarraj said.
Bodde said the visit “demon­strates the continued commitment of the United States to the govern­ment of National Accord and to po­litical reconciliation in Libya.”
Sarraj singled out “those who are building up forces to threaten the security of Libya’s capital.”
“We will not sit on our hands to face those who threaten the secu­rity and safety of the civilians,” said Sarraj, whose brief speech was re­leased on social media by the gov­ernment.
His remarks reflected a shift in the military and political alignments of various factions following the May 18 massacre at the Brak al-Shati mil­itary base, 650km south of Tripoli.
There was no independent word on casualties in the assault on the Brak al-Shati base.
Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s spokesman said the massacre took place when the militia stormed a base used by Haftar’s Libyan Na­tional Army (LNA). Victims included civilians who worked at the airbase or were in the area. LNA spokesman Ahmad al-Mesmari said in a state­ment that summary executions also took place.
The GNA said in a statement that a commission had been set up to in­vestigate the raid and that Defence Minister Mahdi al-Barghati had been suspended.
UN envoy Martin Kobler ex­pressed anger over the massacre in a statement.
“I am outraged by reports of sig­nificant numbers of fatalities, in­cluding civilians and by reports that summary executions may have taken place,” he said.
Libyan analysts agreed that the massacre was an attempt to de­rail moves towards de-escalation, sparked by a rare meeting May 2 between Sarraj and Haftar in Abu Dhabi.
During the meeting, the two lead­ers agreed to sustain a truce in the south, which has been tormented by violent clashes between Haftar’s forces and militias aligned with Sar­raj’s government over the control of bases there.
The recent massacre, however, is putting the truce to the test.
“The assailants came in high number and exploited the relaxed environment at the base that was linked to the truce in the region,” LNA Air Force spokesman Sherif al-Awami told a Libyan television interviewer. “If there is no truce the assault could not have taken place the way it occurred.”
Not only did the attack breach the truce agreement reached in Abu Dhabi, it changed the arrangement of forces in the GNA’s Islamist-dom­inated camp.
That camp, comprised of various militias, had been united in oppo­sition to Haftar’s group in the east, which is widely seen by Tripoli and western regions as anti-Islamist. Haftar’s forces are backed by anti- Islamists Arab governments in Egypt and United Arab Emirates.
The massacre and Sarraj’s subse­quent condemnation caused a split between factions supportive of the GNA, with more radical Islamists, such as the 613 Brigade and the powerful Misrata Revolutionaries voicing support for the assailants and urging a continuation of the fight against Haftar.
Leaders of the Misrata Military Council and military officers from the GNA-aligned al-Bunyan al-Mar­sus coalition, which fought against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Sirte last year, gathered May 21 in Misrata to declare that they no longer recog­nise the GNA.
Ali Saidi, a member of the inter­nationally recognised parliament, blamed the GNA for the attack.
“The GNA gave the legal recogni­tion of the militias that staged the attack. The GNA is to blame for the massacre. The GNA had no force,” he said. “The militias and other forces of the same mind that are providing security for the GNA.”
Mohamed Baayou, a writer in Misrata, said: “The massacre in the south is an extension of the conflict in other regions in Libya. What is needed is a strong truce that every force remains in the area where it is now to give a chance for de-escala­tion and peace.”
Sarraj, who met with US President Donald Trump briefly on the side­lines of a summit in Riyadh, said the government would ask the Unit­ed Nations to lift its arms embargo on Libya with the apparent aim of fighting extremist Islamists embed­ded within his allies.