Libya moves towards civil war as fighting intensifies between militias

Tue 29 Jul 2014

Libya moves towards civil war as fighting intensifies between militias

Three years after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted following a NATO intervention led by the United Kingdom and France, Libya seems to be on the verge of chaos. Recent clashes between brigades that had taken the former leader down for the control of Tripoli and oil resources, highlight the progressive breaking up of political authority.  After the bombing of Tripoli’s airport in early July, fire was set to 6 million-litres petrol reservoirs in the south of the city, raising concern about a dramatic shortage of fuel to come. Western countries have called on their nationals to leave the country while embassies are being closed.  

Lack of central authority

Libya is progressively descending into civil war. Clashes have erupted between Islamists militias, allied with Misratan brigades, and their opponents from the city of Zintan, after the parliamentary elections on 25 June, which were a big loss for Islamist parties. The two groups had united three years ago to bring down Colonel Gaddafi, but have not handed over their weapons so far.

Artillery, tank fire and rockets have been used by rival militias aiming at taking control of strategic points of the country, forcing civilians to leave the cities in turmoil. It is notably the case in the capital city of Tripoli, but also in Benghazi, where at least 38 people were killed on 27 July in clashes between Islamist fighters and troops loyal to the government. Another 97 people had previously died in the fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport. In total, the Health Ministry declared that 160 people had died since the beginning of the clashes two weeks ago. On 27 July, six million litres of fuel were set on fire before a second petroleum depot was targeted on Monday the 28th. These events are a "humanitarian and environmental disaster with unforeseeable consequences" said a government official.

The central authority has been gradually losing power and Libya’s fragile government and army have been unable to control anti-Gaddafi fighters. Prime Minister Abdullah al Thinni was refused boarding in his own plane by militias which control the area. Several ministries have also been attacked by fighters, as well as the parliament building. In parallel, security forces have lost touch and kidnapping are rampant while petrol is becoming scarce, and electricity is regularly cut off as well as internet.

International citizens asked to evacuate

Many Western countries have called their nationals to leave Libya as soon as possible. "British nationals in Libya should leave now by commercial means" said the British Foreign Office on Sunday 27 July, while France, Germany and the Netherlands warned their citizens against increasing kidnapping threats. Clashes between Libyan groups are increasingly affecting foreigners, especially after British diplomats were targeted in their vehicle by gunmen in the outskirts of the capital city.
The United States embassy evacuated its staff on 26 July, as well the United Nations, the Philippines and Austria.

Libyan-led transition hopes disappointed

The recent events are a denial of what the NATO was hoping for three years ago when it favoured regime change in Libya. The hope for a Libyan-led transition is gradually fading away. The recent elections, gave the feeling that the tense transition would be smoothed by popular votes. However, Claudia Gazzini from the International Crisis Group underlined, “There was some naïveté in that approach”. It was rather a “shadow state” that emerged from the revolution, between the militias that have fought Gaddafi but kept on using their arms rather than moving to democratic institutions. Ex-rebels have been hired as security forces by the government, but their loyalties are usually stronger to their tribes or factions. "There seems to be no way in which the government can actually bring the various militias under its control and thereby establish effective security," North Africa specialist at the University of Cambridge George Joffe said. Today, concerns are raising about chaos spilling over across the country’s borders and further destabilization of neighbouring states.  

Sources : The Guardian I, Le Monde,  The New York Times, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Guardian II, Al Arabiya. France 24.

Photo : Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters