In a devastating blow to hope for stability in Libya, the United Nations-hosted national conference scheduled for next week has been called off following an upsurge of violence targeting Libya’s Capital, Tripoli, including an airstrike on the city’s only functioning airport.
The conference was intended as a platform for peace talks between various political factions; with a focus on generating discussion between Libya’s internationally-recogniSed government, led from Tripoli by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and an eastern-based military administration under commander Khalifa Haftar. The two factions have traded attacks and counter attacks over the past years, with several international bodies urging a de-escalation of violence, and civilians often being caught in the crossfire. The ultimate hope for the U.N.-hosted peace talks were to discuss – and establish – a constitutional framework for democratic election in Libya, with the aim to unify the country and end the eight-year crisis that has persisted since the NATO-assisted removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Despite being merely days away from this conference, Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive against Tripoli last week, culminating on the airstrike against Tripoli’s airport. In defiance of international calls to halt this deadly advance, forces loyal to Haftar have continued to target civilians and civilian infrastructure in moves which may be seen as tantamount to war crimes, according to the U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet. Over the last week, the World Health Organization has reported the deaths of at least 47 people, including 9 children, with more than 180 people wounded and 3,400 people forced to flee. With heavy artillery being used in residential areas, the U.N., amongst others, has expressed concern at the possibility of migrants and refugees being used as human shields in the ongoing conflict, and have responded by evacuating 150 refugees from a detention centre in Tripoli – with UN workers “braving bullets” to relocate the civilians to a safe zone (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees).
While the U.N. was determined to proceed with the talks despite this most recent military push by the LNA, Monday’s attack on Tripoli’s airport – alongside increasing concerns for the safety of non-military personal following the death of an emergency-services doctor – has forced the conference to be delayed. In a statement, Ghassan Salame, U.N. Special Envoy to Libya, lamented that the U.N “… cannot ask people to take part in the conference during gunfire and airstrikes… to the backdrop of artillery shelling and air raids”. Until hopes for the conference can be renewed, the focus must now turn towards the release of refugees and migrants from detention centres within Tripoli’s conflict zones, and the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure across a war-ravaged, oil-rich Libya.