TRIPOLI/GENEVA – Casualties from the battle for Libya’s capital mounted on Tuesday while Islamic State killed three people in a desert town, illustrating how jihadis may exploit renewed chaos.
Medical facilities reported 47 people killed and 181 wounded in recent days as eastern forces seek to take Tripoli from an internationally-recognized government, the World Health Organization said.
The fatalities were mainly fighters, although they also comprised nine civilians including two doctors, the WHO said.
The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Hifter — a former general in ousted strongman Moammar Gadhafi’s army — seized the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year before heading toward Tripoli this month.
They are fighting on the southern side of the city, where witnesses said on Monday afternoon the LNA had lost control of a former airport and withdrawn down the road.
The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal that Hifter boycotted, is seeking to repel the LNA with the help of armed groups from Misrata.
Serraj’s forces carried out an airstrike on an LNA position in the suburb of Suq al-Khamis on Tuesday, a resident and an eastern military source said, without giving more details.
The renewed conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scupper U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.
A U.N.-sponsored peace conference, scheduled to start on Sunday in the southwestern town of Ghadames, looked sure to be postponed. “I will work with all my might to hold Libya’s national conference as soon as possible … when the conditions for success are in place,” U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame said.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a cease-fire, a return to a U.N. peace plan, and a halt to Hifter’s push.
Far south of Tripoli, the Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for attacking the town of Fuqaha, where residents said three people were killed and another kidnapped.
Fuqaha is controlled by fighters loyal to Hifter, who casts himself as a foe of Islamist extremism though he is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gadhafi.
IS has been active in Libya in the turmoil since the Western-backed overthrow of Gadhafi eight years ago. It took control of the coastal city of Sirte in 2015 but lost it the following year to local forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, and now operates in the shadows.
The attack on Fuqaha indicated IS may be looking to exploit gaps left by movements of Hifter’s troops.
On Monday, a warplane took out Tripoli’s only functioning airport, and the number of displaced people — 3,400 at the last U.N. count — is mounting alongside the casualties.
“There are fears that the civilian death toll will rise rapidly as the fighting intensifies and spreads into more densely populated parts of the city,” said Amnesty International’s regional deputy, Magdalena Mughrabi.
Libya has become the main conduit for African migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, many of whom suffer torture, rape and extortion on their journeys.
Those who manage to board a boat to Italy risk drowning or being sent back into detention in inhumane conditions, according to the U.N. migration agency, which estimates twice as many die in the Sahara desert as in the Mediterranean.
U.N. agencies say some 5,700 refugees and migrants are trapped in detention centers in conflict areas, and fear some may be used as human shields or forcibly recruited.
“They tell us they can hear the clashes. Many are really scared,” U.N. refugee agency UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.
Libyan state oil firm NOC called on the warring parties to keep oil fields safe and allow production to continue, a company statement said on Tuesday.
The LNA says it has 85,000 men in an army analysts believe has been swelled by Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders. Its elite Saiqa (Lightning) force numbers some 3,500, LNA sources say.
The U.N.-backed prime minister Serraj, 59, received calls from Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and France’s President Emmanuel Macron on Monday to discuss the crisis.
U.N. envoy Salame is staying in Libya, a spokesman said, though some staff at his mission went on leave and administrative personnel will work temporarily from Tunisia.
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