An air raid on the last functioning airport in Libya’s capital Tripoli in April by forces loyal to renegade general Khalifa Haftar has undermined progress towards a democratic and peaceful solution to the political stalemate which has inundated the North African country since the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The international community has condemned the actions of the pro-Haftar Libyan National Army (LNA) which has made recent gains in Libya beyond its stronghold in the east. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, along with the EU High Representative, expressed their distaste for the military advances of Haftar: “We firmly believe that there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict.” Neither France or Russia, who in the past have publicly expressed support for Haftar, were sympathetic to the offensive, with the former claiming no knowledge of the military strongman’s air raid plans and the latter urging bloodlessness.
Meanwhile, according to Tripoli-based Libya Al-Ahrar TV, the internationally-recognized and UN-backed authorities in Tripoli headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj responded with aggressive, counter-attacking discourse to what it sees as an attempted coup. Mohammed Qanouno, a spokesperson for the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) armed forces, unveiled mission “Volcano of Rage” to “cleanse” Libya of its rebel militias.
There has also been concern expressed for innocent civilians and migrants by Antonio Vitorino, the director-general of the International Organization for Migration (IOM): “The safety of migrants in detention is especially concerning should there be an escalation in military action,” he said, continuing, “The fate of all Libyan civilians and the safety of humanitarian workers also remains an overriding concern.” While there are no reported casualties from the air raid at Mitiga International Airport, the World Health Organization has ascribed the deaths of at least 47 people, including children, and the displacement of at least 3,400 people to the ongoing civil war spreading to Tripoli. Meanwhile, the UN has evacuated 150 refugees from a detention centre in Libya’s capital.
The air raid in Tripoli is but part of an eight year struggle for peace and stability in Libya since the fall of Gaddafi as part of the wider Arab Spring movement ended 42 years of dictatorship. Since 2011, the oil-rich, war-torn region has resembled a patchwork of power centres, with the main dualism of Haftar’s stronghold in the east and UN-backed GNA authorities in the west coexisting alongside numerous other rebel militias, tribes and factions, including ISIS, all competing for territory.
General Haftar was part of the revolutionary forces led by Gaddafi that toppled King Idris I to take control of Libya in 1969. Now, the 75-year-old strongman has hinted at ruling the region himself despite having participated in UN-mediated negotiations to nurture democratic institutions and stability to the region. Haftar’s latest antagonistic actions in Tripoli, coupled with his territorial advances in the south earlier in 2019 and the breakdown of peace deal talks with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres in April, suggest that democracy is not his goal. In response, a UN-mediated conference for peace and democracy in Libya scheduled to take place next week has been cancelled.
The LNA’s advances into Tripoli signal a new chapter in the ongoing second Libyan civil war. The offensive has devastatingly halted steps forward in UN-mediated negotiations for peace and democracy in Libya and for wider security in the Mediterranean. Libyan parties had agreed to a peaceful election as soon as possible in 2018 – any such election seems to now be ever so more distant and elusive.
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