In the latest twist in Libya’s long-running civil war, on October 2017 deal between the United Nations-backed Presidential Council in Tripoli and militias in the coastal city of Sabratha to stem the flow of migrants heading across the Mediterranean has spurred renewed fighting that has left dozens of people dead. According to some reports, the deal had direct support from Italy, where most of the migrants enter Europe. Italian officials have denied this.
Regardless of who was involved in the deal, it appears to have sparked a confrontation between the al-Ammu militia and the allied Brigade 48 and other local militias, after al-Ammu intercepted human traffickers connected with a rival militia, Shuhada al-Wadi. Previously known for smuggling migrants to Europe, al-Ammu agreed to stop boats from leaving Sabratha in exchange for political legitimacy and police and army jobs for its members.
The head of the Sabratha Military Council told al-Araby al-Jadeed, a pan-Arab media outlet, “This is a war that started between human traffickers, then snowballed into an ideological and political one.”
The head of the Sabratha Civil Society Foundation said 93 people were killed in the fighting, while the commander of the winning faction said the fighting killed 17 and wounded 164. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya said at least five of those who died were civilians but did not count the number of fighters killed. The clashes also threatened Sabratha’s Roman ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
After three weeks of violence, a militia known as Anti-ISIS Operation Room – from the faction fighting against al-Ammu – declared victory and took control of the Mellitah oil and gas terminal.
Both sides in the conflict are at least nominally linked to the UN-backed government in Tripoli. Yet controversial military strongman General Khalifa Haftar, who is associated with the parliament based in eastern Libya and rejects the Presidential Council, threw his support behind Anti-ISIS Operating Room. The group has denied working with him.
The clampdown on migrants appears to have worked, at least in the short term. According to the International Organization for Migration, about 140,000 migrants have arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean so far in 2017, compared to 334,500 in the same period last year 2016; 2,700 died trying to make the crossing this year 2017, compared to about 4,000 in the same period last year 2016.
However, that may partly be the result of migrants being imprisoned by the militias in Libya, most of them in abysmal conditions. After the fighting in Sabratha subsided, Anti-ISIS Operation Room announced it had found more than 4,000 migrants locked in camps in the city and accused al-Ammu of “storing” the migrants to ship later.
The militias are part of the complicated political landscape of Libya, which has three governments competing for power – the United Nations-backed Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and rival parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk. Meanwhile, a patchwork of militias operate throughout the country, some aligned with the different political factions, some operating in a power void.
Extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) have also been able to flourish in the vacuum. IS seized control of the coastal town of Sirte in March 2015 but was ousted in December 2016 after a military campaign by groups aligned with the Presidential Council supported by US air strikes. Since then, the group’s presence has lingered in desert areas in the south and in scattered cells throughout the country.
On 25 September 2017, the US, in coordination with the GNA, carried out six air strikes on an IS desert camp, which US officials said killed 17 militants. The US Africa Command wrote in a statement that ‘terrorists have sought safe haven and freedom of movement in Libya to launch external terror attacks in neighbouring countries, and their operatives in Libya have also been connected to multiple attacks across Europe’. It added that while ‘Libya has made considerable progress against IS, most notably by dislodging IS fighters from Sirte last year 2016, the terrorists have tried to take advantage of political instability there to create safe havens in parts of the country’.
In a report on the prevalence of Salafist-jihadist groups in Libya, Lydia Sizer of the Middle East Institute noted that even when there was a single government in Libya from 2011 to 2014, ‘it was too weak to counter threats from these groups. Since the political crisis beginning in late 2013 and accelerating into civil unrest in 2014-2015, multiple, parallel governments have been preoccupied fighting among themselves instead of unifying against common threats from [Salafist-jihadist] movements.’
That fighting has also drawn in outside parties. In September 2017, Libyan human rights groups accused the United Arab Emirates of committing war crimes, including killing hundreds of civilians, through air strikes and its backing of General Haftar. The accusations, presented at a conference on human rights in Geneva, Switzerland included eyewitness accounts of ‘extrajudicial killings, forced hunger and displacement that they or their family members experienced under Haftar in Derna and Ganfouda, provinces in eastern Libya’, according to al-Jazeera.