“Our home is under attack. Fighting is not a choice for us, because if coronavirus does not kill us, Haftar will” says one of the fighters for Tripoli’s government. Khalifa Haftar, the General of the East, promised he would free the capital from terrorists and militias in a matter of days. The fighting, however, has been going on for over a year. Libya is a divided country, without any resources left, and now called to face the health emergency represented by Coronavirus, too.
At the end of March, when the virus had already killed thousands of people in Europe, the Government of National Accord (GNA), recognised by the United Nations, drafted a plan to face the Coronavirus emergency. Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj decided to distribute five million Libyan dinars, approximately 323 million euros, to a number of towns on the entire national territory. “Tripoli is giving money even to towns under Haftar’s control. This is absurd! They want to send a message of unity and control over the entire territory. But this remissive attitude is exactly what paved Haftar’s way to our doorstep” states Saif, engineer from Tripoli. Meanwhile in Benghazi Ahmed Al Mismari, the General’s spokesperson, warned citizens that sharing messages on Coronavirus on social media would not be tolerated.
Some of the measures included in the GNA plan to contain the pandemic, such as a curfew from 2PM to 6AM and other restrictions on circulation – military vehicles aside – have reportedly been respected by the population in all Tripolitania. Fear of the virus adds to the terror of war, and the Coronavirus curfew couples with the war curfew. Men in white overalls, covered up to their eyes, invaded the streets of the capital to sanitise the busiest places, among which ministry offices.
The Ministry of Justice also issued a decree to empty jails, which led to the release of 466 inmates from Tripoli’s prisons. All country borders were closed in both directions, except for Ras Ajdir, a small town at the border with Tunisia. In just a few hours, dozens of men assaulted Ras Ajdir, closing the passage. “Many Libyans are coming back from abroad. They could be infected. And we do not want to be guinea pigs” says a man from Zuwara, town of the Amazigh linguistic minority, at the Libyan-Tunisian border. According to the source, only trucks with supplies have been passing through the western border since, but no people.
Despite the numbers of infected patients being relatively low in Western Libya, the fear of an upcoming spreading of the virus is high. Even the United States announced a 6 million dollars fund to help the country face the Covid-19 pandemic. A contribution for “added humanitarian assistance”, as a note of the US embassy for Libya reads. According to data disclosed by Tripoli’s Ministry of Health, there are only two labs for swab testing in the whole country, and the beds in ICUs are around 40 in the territory controlled by the GNA. At mid May, there were around 70 recorded cases, out of which three died, 35 healed and 33 are in self-isolation. “We are lucky because the numbers are staying low, at least for now,” a teacher from Tripoli says. “The hospitals are collapsing. If you want treatment, you have to get the medicines by yourself” continues the woman, who lives in Ras Hassan, one of the central neighbourhoods bombed by Haftar’s missiles at the beginning of April. “We hold on and we pray Allah” she says. In Libya you need to make your house bomb-proof before it can turn into a safe shelter from the pandemic. On the past 6th of April, the Al Khadra hospital, chosen by government authorities as the main structure to treat Covid-19 patients, was bombed by Haftar’s troops. All patients, except those in grave condition in the emergency room, were immediately evacuated from the building, which has around 400 beds available.
With their aftermath of death and destruction, bombs still remain the biggest fear in Libya, because at the end of each day you need to count deaths among fighters and civilians alike. And people gather at funerals, they hold on to each other to cry together for the last child, brother or friend killed by a missile or a sniper. They do not wear a mask, they do not respect social distancing. Of course they fear the virus, but war is tiring and confusing. After all, thousands already died because of the war in the country, and luckily only tens because of Covid-19.
Haftar’s foolish race
Haftar is busy with his foolish race against time, and not even a pandemic is reason enough for him to suspend his fight. He promised his sponsors he would conquer Tripoli in a matter of days. However, one year later, not only did his men not enter the capital, they are now suffering heavy defeats. With the Turkish arrival on the frontline in Libya, Haftar’s forces appear stuck.
Egypt, the UAE and Jordan have supplied weapons and ammunitions since the beginning, France provided special forces and intelligence services over the territory. Since October, Russia has joined the General’s lobby as well, sending mercenaries from the Wagner Society. Sudan sent thousands of Janjaweed, pro-government militias, to fight side by side with Haftar’s men in the desert in southern Libya. The arrival of Russian technology marked a turning point in the offensive on Tripoli. It swept away Prime Minister Sarraj’s hesitations to make the alliance with Turkey official. After signing the agreement on the delimitation of sea borders, Ankara de facto acquired the right to defend its ally in case of attack. In January, Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent dozens of Turkish soldiers and some thousands of Syrian pro-Turkey fighters, but above all he sent advanced weapons.
With the free fall of oil price, the General lost the contractual power he could use in the arm wrestle with Tripoli, after his men had blocked oil wells and terminals on almost all national territory last February. “With the price of the barrel under 35 dollars, it is almost unprofitable to extract oil and sell it” a Libyan economy analyst said.
In his frenzy to restore the balance of power, Haftar asked the people in Benghazi to give his mandate to rule the country at the end of April, and some days later he went live on television thanking the people for giving him such mandate. It is unclear what the protocol for the investiture was. Even Agila Salah, the president of the House of Representatives in Benghazi, dismissed Haftar’s declaration as an unexpected self-proclamation. So much so that in a meeting with the parliament in Benghazi he stated: “Khalifa and I can certainly solve our personal issues, however, it would be better to keep the parliament in the east and not invite our allies to move on Tripoli,” which is exactly what Haftar requested to substantiate his umpteenth attempted coup.
The General, today 76 year-old and sick, has been looking for the best way to become the leader of a new military regime in Libya since 2012. Dismissed by Tripoli as a man of the CIA when he asked the then National General Congress for a seat in the government, after six years of untarnished alliance even the support of the parliament in Benghazi is now shifting. Haftar’s self-proclamation did not convince foreign allies either, those same allies that provided him weapons and means at the beginning of the war with Tripoli. Haftar has not managed to honour the pact of a blitzkrieg, and today Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, France, and Russia are probably considering changing their strategy in the area. In all this, while the General’s sponsors lost millions of euros in the game of risk played in Tripoli, Libya lost more than a thousand lives, 400 of them civilians, 149 thousand people were forced to abandon their homes and 345 thousands are trapped in their houses on the battlefront.
The recapture by Tripoli’s forces
“A series of mortar shots on civilians, but few advances on the several battlefronts in Tripoli” a fighter in the Libyan capital told us. At AbuGhrein , Haftar’s last outpost on the east in his march towards the capital, images of Turkish drones burning the bodies of some fighters – seemingly Sudanese mercenaries from the Rapid Response Force paramilitary group – went all over the Internet. “They say Coronavirus has not spread much here in Libya because people do not travel much. Maybe not on the official records, but there are many foreigners here, not only migrants but also mercenaries,” explains a man from Misrata, the main town on the Abu Ghrein battlefront.
Moreover, on mid May Tripoli backed forces took over Al-Watiya airbase, southwest of the capital Tripoli and controlled since 2014 by militias loyal to General Haftar. Controlled by the town of Zintan, around ten kilometres south, Watiya is the logistic base for Haftar’s air strikes in the area since the beginning of the civil war in 2014. The capture of Watiya is a turning point in the Lçibyan conflict as it was the last outpost of Haftar forces in the West. “Now we can finally head to the South” says one of the fighters from Zawiya. The move was possible thanks to a split inside the city of Zintan, previously united under Haftar’s flag. The head of anti-Haftar operations for the GNA is not by chance from Zintan, Osama Al-Juwaili.
On the past 14th of April GNA’s troops recaptured the entire shoreline going from Zawiya, 50 km west of Tripoli, to Zuwara, at the border with Tunisia. Sabratha, Jmyl, Riqdalin and Zultan had fallen under the control of the General last fall, and his troops had bombed Zuwara several times in the past weeks. The aim was to conquer the border with Tunisia and suffocate the enemy, closing the only escape route for civilians in the region. The operation Volcano of Rage, launched by Tripoli, managed to give back the missing part of the Libyan coast to the coalition.
“My brother is with Haftar’s forces. He escaped like everybody else,” says a man from Sabratha. “No, they did not even try to resist. They were betrayed by someone of their own troops. When they realised, they flew” the source explains. A few hours after the tricolour flag of revolutionary Libya started waving again in Sabratha, Ahmed Dabbashi, better known as Al Ammu, was on the streets talking to people, promising that there would be no repercussions for those who had been siding with Haftar. Dabbashi is a notorious trafficker of migrants, and thanks to his fortune built on human trafficking, today he can count on one of the most important militias in town. Ironically, 24 hours after his invitation to a peaceful coexistence, his cousin, commander of the 4th brigade, was captured by Haftar’s troops and immediately transferred to Benghazi as war trophy.
The situation on the field is ever changing. South of Tripoli, troops of the GNA conquered territories in Khallatat, Ramla and near the former international airport. Even in Salah Al-Din, battlefront closer to the city centre, men defending Tripoli managed to force the enemy some kilometres south. However, eyes are focused on the town of Tarhuna, around 100 kilometres south west of Tripoli and one of the General’s main strongholds in the west. For months the infantry Seventh Brigade from Tarhuna, guided by the Kuni brothers on behalf of Haftar, sow terror in Tripoli. At the beginning of 2020 the elder of the Kuni brothers died while fighting. Nevertheless, Russian military advisors rushed to Tarhuna to define a plan for the final strike on Tripoli. “Conquering Tarhuna will not be easy, but it is not impossible either. And once we have Tarhuna, Haftar’s puzzle will break into pieces again,” a volunteer of the Libyan Red Crescent said. “Today our morale is high” the man concluded.
A field to test new weapons
The mortar shots were still echoing on the Salah Al-Din battlefront, south of Tripoli, when some of the fighters fell on the ground, panting and trembling. Many other fighters for the GNA who were defending the capital against the offensive by the General were at the hospital, retching and experiencing respiratory distress despite not showing any signs of serious wounds. “Haftar’s forces could be using nerve gas” wrote on social media Amru Salahuddien, a photographer and eyewitness from the Salah Al-Din front, on the past 22nd of April. A doctor pointed out that it could be phosphine, white phosphor diluted with water. Meanwhile Fathi Bashaga, the GNA Minister of the Interior, announced the start of investigations on the possible use of chemical weapons based on medical records. Haftar’s spokesperson, Ahmed Al Mismari, rejected the accusations as mere lies. A note by the UN representative in Libya Stephanie Williams, deputy chief of mission acting as chief of mission until a new envoy is nominated following Ghassan Salame resignation for stress in March, defined the report “alarming.” As Williams specified: “Libya has become a field for testing all kinds of new weapons.” And for sure the much discussed European mission Irini, led by France and Italy, will not be able to stop the incoming flow of weapons in the North African country.
On May 20, at least eight Russian-made fighter jets flew from Syria into Eastern Libya in support of renegade general Khalifa Haftar. The deployment of Mig-19 among the other military jets from Haftar’s ally sounds like a counter move to the latest attacks that Turkey backed GNA forces on Haftar groups in Tripolitania. A significant escalation of the ongoing proxy war in Libya looms over Libya.
This article follows the first reportage by Nancy Porsia on the condition of migrants in Libya during the Coronavirus emergency: “Migrants in Libya, trapped between war and Covid-19”
Cover: TRIPOLI, March 25, 2020. Troops of the Government of National Accord (GNA), supported by the UN, take position during conflicts with the Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the east, on the frontline in Ain-Zara near Tripoli. Photo by Amru Salahuddien.