An attack on Brak El-Shati airbase in Libya left over 140 dead on Thursday. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s government in 2011, Libya has been the site of a bloody conflict between various militias and the three governments they have allied themselves with. Thursday’s attack saw members of the Third Force Militia (which has allied itself with the Tripoli-based, UN-backed Government of National Accord) attacking this strategically important airbase held by the Libyan National Army, an armed group affiliated with the Tobruk-based Parliament-in-exile.
While the possession of this asset advances the strategic interests of the UN-backed government, the context in which it was taken has created has created a crisis for the Government of National Accord (GNA), and its fragile relations with its political rivals and the international community as a whole. Problematically, the attack came on the heels of a Truce reached earlier this month in which representatives of the two rival governments agreed to cease aggressive action. Additionally, representatives of the LNA have claimed that the majority of soldiers killed were returning unarmed from a parade, and were executed in spite of being unarmed. An unverified number of civilians were also killed in the attack.
Aguila Saleh, Speaker of the Tobruk-based Parliament in Eastern Libya accused the GNA’s third force of committing “a serious breech” of their truce agreement, and members of the LNA have promised a “strong response.” GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has denied ordering the attack and responded by ordering an Investigation into the events surrounding the attack. Additionally, Defense Minister Mahdi al-Barghathi, and Imam al-Treiki, head of the GNA’s Third Force Militia have both been suspended, pending the outcome of this investigation.
Though the UN and Western Powers support the claim of the GNA to be Libya’s legitimate government, their representatives were also quick to criticize the actions of the GNA-affiliated Third Force Militia. Martin Kobler, the UN Envoy to Libya, stated that he was “outraged,” and suggested that the International Criminal Court could persecute those responsible for the attack. British Ambassador Peter Millet also condemned the attack and stated that cooperation was necessary to avert further escalations in conflict.
In the event that the GNA is found to be responsible for ordering the attack on Brak El-Shati Airbase, the implications for its legitimacy within both within Libya and internationally will be considerable. Organizations like the UN will have difficulty supporting the government while allowing its members to be prosecuted for War Crimes, and the attack may have jeopardized a shot at minimizing the conflict that has torn Libya apart. Even in the event that members of the GNA are found not to have been responsible for the attack, its occurrence points to the extent to which Libya’s governments are still reliant on the support of armed militias, and the often unpredictable nature of their behaviour.
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