The UN Chief calls for a prompt and transparent investigation into possible war crimes in Libya after at least 11 mass graves were discovered in recently liberated opposition strongholds near Tripoli.
Footage of bodies stacked on top of each other in tarp lined trenches and inside shipping containers scattered through the desert began trickling out on social media Thursday, shortly after The United Nations (UN) recognized, Government of National Accord (GNA) reclaimed key territories in Tarhuna, 40 miles southeast of the capital. The discovery confirms allegations by Human Rights Watch and others who have long accused forces allied with Khalifa Haftar of war crimes.
In a statement released on Saturday, the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, called on Libyan authorities to “secure the mass graves, identify the victims, establish causes of death and return the bodies to next of kin.” He went on to assure the UN would offer its support in facilitating the investigations if needed.
The Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Sayala responded to the UN in a letter Sunday June 14th, indicating the body count has reached 300 and includes men, women, and children, some of whom were buried alive. Sayala requested the Security Council take immediate action to file the evidence of Tarhouna mass graves with the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In addition to mass graves, investigators discovered looted stores, burned-out villages, and a trove of Russian munitions scattered through suburban neighbourhoods -a symptom of the excessive foreign influence that has plagued Libya since the removal of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2014.
An armed group known al-Kaniyat, allied with Haftar opposition forces is suspected to be the main culprit in mass civilian assault however GNA forces have also faced accusations of human rights abuses. The New York Times reports government troops looted stores, burned buildings, and carried out revenge killings against supporters of al-Kaniyat, the Haftar-allied militia that had fled Tarhuna days earlier. The UN said At least 16,000 people in Tarhuna and southern Tripoli were forced to flee their homes.
As of now, GNA is the only governing body overlooking the investigation leaving some human rights organizations to question whether reports coming out of Tripoli can be deemed objective.
“We want to be able to go in, or have the UN go in, and collect evidence of potential war crimes and other atrocities … so eventually a process takes place where justice can be served,” he said.
The United States, on the other hand, is mostly concerned with the continued influx of Russian military equipment, weapons, and Russian Wagner mercenaries flowing into Libya. Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker warned increased pressure from Russian in the region is what led to the significant Turkish intervention now underway in Tripoli. In a special briefing, Schenker said “the continued interference from external actors is a challenge to U.S. interests and regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also as a tragedy for the Libyan people. Libyans want peace and an end to foreign intervention.”
Over the last 14-months, Tarhuna has been the site of intense fighting between Libya’s two main warring parties the GNA headed by Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Both parties have questionable human rights records and loyalties to foreign powers with crossing interests.
LNA is supported by France, Jordan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates while GNA is backed by Turkey, Italy, and Qatar. All entities are hoping to win a share of the country’s vast energy reserves and exploit instability to carve out their own claims to territory for military purposes.
If the chaos is ever going to stop in Libya foreign influences must start being held accountable for the mass atrocities committed on their behalf. They also should immediately begin honouring UN imposed arms embargoes and ceasefires over Libya.
Tarhuna may have been LNA’s last hold on the western front of Libya but tensions are expected to remain high as militias continue to wage a campaign to recapture the coastal town of Sirte, which holds access to the country’s vast oil fields currently under Haftar’s control.
Turkey and Russian officials – the main culprits of recent aggressions in Tripoli agreed to reopen the diplomatic channels via peace talks after news of the mass graves in Tarhuna came out but unfortunately canceled all such plans without explanation on Sunday, June 14 according to Al Jezeera. The move sends a disheartening message as fighting continues to rage in Sirte.