US stands with Tripoli government after military base massacre
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.