- The worst fighting in Tripoli in two years
- Fears of a wider conflict
- The political confrontation between two rival governments
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Rival factions clashed across the Libyan capital on Saturday in the worst fighting there in two years as months of political confrontation erupted into urban warfare that threatens to escalate into a wider conflict.
A health ministry source said 23 people were killed in the fighting on Saturday, including 17 civilians. The ministry said earlier that 87 people were injured.
The ongoing fight in the city for control of the government is likely to push Libya back into all-out war after two years of comparative peace that led to a failed political process aimed at holding national elections.
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The confrontation for power in Libya took place between the Tripoli-based National Unity Government led by Abdel Hamid Dabaiba and a rival administration led by Fathi Bashagha backed by the eastern parliament.
Eyewitnesses said that forces allied with Bashagha tried to seize territory in Tripoli from several directions on Saturday, but his main military convoy turned back towards Misurata before reaching the capital.
Dabaiba later posted a video clip online showing him visiting fighters in the city after the clashes stopped.
Fighting broke out during the night and intensified into the morning, with small arms fire, heavy machine guns and mortars spreading in the central areas. Plumes of black smoke rose across the Tripoli skyline and echoes of gunfire and explosions resounded in the air.
By the afternoon, forces allied with Bashagha appeared to converge on Tripoli from three directions. In Janzour northwest of Tripoli, a key arrival point for some forces loyal to the Bashagha, local residents reported violent clashes.
To the south of Tripoli, witnesses in the Abu Salim area said that after a video clip was circulated on social media, which Reuters could not verify, it appears that a strong commander loyal to Bashagha is launching an attack there.
Meanwhile, an eyewitness said that a main convoy of more than 300 vehicles belonging to Bashagha set off towards Tripoli from the northeast along the coastal road. Eyewitnesses said it had returned to its base in Misurata.
Turkey, which has a military presence around Tripoli and helped forces in the city fight an eastern offensive in 2020 with drone strikes, called for an immediate ceasefire and said, “We continue to stand by our Libyan brothers.”
Abdel Moneim Salem, a resident of central Tripoli, said, “This is horrific. My family and I could not sleep because of the clashes. The sound was very loud and very frightening. We stayed awake in case we had to leave quickly. Feeling terrible.”
Large armed factions supporting each side in the Libyan political conflict have repeatedly massed around Tripoli in recent weeks, with convoys of military vehicles moving around the city and threatening to use force to achieve their goals.
Ali, a 23-year-old student, who declined to give his surname, said he fled his apartment with his family during the night after bullets hit the building. “We couldn’t survive any longer,” he added.
Libya has seen little peace since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi and split in 2014 between rival eastern and western factions, drawing in regional powers. Libyan oil production, the main prize for the warring groups, has been repeatedly interrupted during the years of chaos.
An offensive in 2019 by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar backed by parliament in the east of the country collapsed in 2020, leading to a ceasefire and a UN-backed peace process.
The truce included the formation of a national unity government led by Dbayba to rule Libya in full and supervise the national elections that were scheduled to take place last December, but were abandoned amid disagreements over the vote.
Parliament said Dabaiba’s mandate had expired and appointed Bashagha to take over the position. Dabaiba said parliament had no right to replace him and that he would not step down until after the elections.
Bashagha attempted to enter Tripoli in May, which led to an exchange of fire and his exodus from the city.
But since then, a series of deals has led to the reorganization of some armed factions within the main confrontational coalitions around Tripoli.
Haftar remains closely allied with the eastern parliament, and after his 2019-20 offensive, some groups in Tripoli remain vehemently opposed to any alliance in which he plays a role.
A statement by the National Unity Government said that the recent clashes in Tripoli erupted because fighters allied with Bashagha opened fire on a convoy in the capital, while other units loyal to Bashagha massed outside the city. She accused Bashagha of backing away from talks to resolve the crisis.
The Bashagha administration said in a statement that it never refused talks and that its overtures were rejected by Dabaiba. It did not respond directly to the confirmation of its connection to the clashes.
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(Covering) Ahmed Al-Amami (Additional reporting) by Ayman Al-Werfalli, Hani Emara and Jonathan Spicer Writing by Angus McDowall Editing by Praveen Shar and Frances Kerry
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