- Worst fights in Tripoli in two years
- Fear of wider conflicts
- Political deadlock between two rival governments
TRIPOLI, Aug. 27 (Reuters) – Rival factions battled in Libya’s capital on Saturday in the worst clashes there in two years, as an eyewitness said troops linked to a parliament-backed government entered the city to try to regain power to take over.
The health ministry of the government of Tripoli gave a preliminary death toll of 12 people, with 87 injured, but did not say how many civilians or fighters were.
Ongoing fighting in the city over government control would likely plunge Libya back into full-scale war after two years of relative peace that involved a failed political process aimed at holding national elections.
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A months-long standoff for power in Libya has pitted the Tripoli-based government of national unity (GNU) under Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah against a rival government under Fathi Bashagha backed by the eastern parliament.
Fighting broke out overnight when one of Tripoli’s main groups attacked a base occupied by another, witnesses there said, leading to hours of shootings and blasts.
The fighting intensified later on Saturday morning, with small arms fire, heavy machine guns and mortars being deployed in several central areas. Columns of black smoke rose over the Tripoli skyline, shooting and explosions reverberating in the sky.
Violent clashes later began in Janzour, on the coastal road west of Tripoli and a possible entry point for some troops aligned with Bashagha, people working in the area said.
An eyewitness, meanwhile, said a convoy of more than 300 vehicles attached to Bashagha had departed from Zlitan, about 150 km (90 miles) east of Tripoli along the coastal road. Bashagha has been in Misrata, near Zlitan, for weeks.
South of Tripoli, a video circulating on social media, which Reuters could not verify, alleged that troops belonging to another Bashagha-lined commander entered the Abu Salim district. Witnesses near Abu Salim said there was heavy shooting in the area.
The GNU Ministry of Health said several hospitals and health centers have been affected by the fighting.
The United Nations mission in Libya called for an immediate end to the fighting and expressed concern about the shelling in civilian districts.
“This is terrible. My family and I could not sleep because of the collisions. The noise was too loud and too frightening,” said Abdulmenam Salem, a resident of central Tripoli. “We stayed awake in case we had to leave quickly. It’s a terrible feeling.”
Major armed factions supporting both sides in the political dispute in Libya have repeatedly mobilized around Tripoli in recent weeks, with convoys of military vehicles passing through the city threatening violence to reach their targets.
Photos and videos shared online of the city center, but which Reuters could not immediately verify, showed military vehicles driving through the streets, gunmen firing and local residents trying to put out fires.
Ali, a 23-year-old student who refused to give his last name, said he and his family fled his apartment overnight after bullets hit their building. “We couldn’t stay and survive any longer,” he added.
Libya has seen little peace since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi and split in 2014 between rival eastern and western factions, dragging regional powers along. Libyan oil production, a top prize for the warring groups, has been shut down repeatedly during the years of chaos.
An offensive in 2019 by Eastern Commander Khalifa Haftar, backed by the Eastern Parliament, collapsed in 2020, triggering a ceasefire and a UN-backed peace process.
The ceasefire included setting up Dbeibah’s GNU to rule all of Libya and oversee the national elections scheduled for December last year, but which were halted due to disagreements over the vote.
The parliament said Dbeibah’s mandate had expired and appointed Bashagha to take over. Dbeibah said parliament had no right to replace him and that he would not resign until after elections.
Bashagha attempted to enter Tripoli in May, leading to a firefight and his departure from the city.
Since then, however, a series of agreements have led to realignments of some armed factions within the main coalitions opposing Tripoli.
Haftar remains closely linked to the eastern parliament, and after his 2019-20 offensive, some Tripoli groups remain deeply opposed to any coalition in which he plays a role.
A GNU statement said the latest clashes in Tripoli were caused by fighters firing with Bashagha at a convoy in the capital, while other pro-Bashagha units had gathered outside the city. It accused Bashagha of withdrawing from talks to resolve the crisis.
Bashagha’s government said in a statement that it had never turned down talks and that its own overtures had been rejected by Dbeibah. It did not immediately respond to claims that it was linked to the clashes.
Both Dbeibah and Bashagha have tried to bring international opinion to justice, pledging to keep the peace and accusing each other of using force in the pursuit of power.
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Reporting by Ahmed Elumami Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfali and Hani Amara Writing by Angus McDowall Editing by Pravin Char and Frances Kerry
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