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Libyan national conference postponed, nearly 500,000 children at ‘direct risk’ from fighting around Tripoli

9 April 2019

An imminent UN-led Libyan conference seeking to set up elections for the war-ravaged, oil-rich country has been postponed because of ongoing clashes near the capital, the top United Nations official in the country said on Tuesday.

Ghassan Salamé, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), made the announcement after condemning Monday’s attack by the self-styled Libyan National Army’s (LNA) aircraft against Meitiga airport, Tripoli’s only functioning terminal that is available for civilian use.

The conference was hoping to reach agreement among the various political factions after months of UN-led discussions at a local level nationwide, towards democratic elections which would unify the country and lead to way to economic recovery.

The development follows concerns voiced by the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, that attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in recent days, may amount to war crimes, including those by LNA commander Khalifa Haftar.

Airport attack may have been indiscriminate

“Khalifa Haftar’s people are saying that they bombed it because there was a military target,” said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the High Commissioner’s office, OHCHR. “Now even if this is a military target, all feasible precautions need to be taken to minimize the incidental loss of civilian lives, to refrain from indiscriminate attacks. We have reports that the weapons that were used are not…the latest technology; that they may, in effect, have been indiscriminate.”

The spiralling violence comes after years of instability that have followed the overthrow of President Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with the internationally-recognized and Tripoli-based Government of National Accord now, in effect, under assault from eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

More than 3,400 people have fled fighting near Tripoli in recent days, the UN has warned, in addition to “47 dead and 181 wounded” in the last three days, spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO), spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said.

“The current clashes are burdening the already overloaded health system with frequent supply chain breaks,” Mr. Jasarevic explained, noting that as Libya’s year-old conflict “has dragged on, hundreds of primary healthcare centres and more than 20 of its hospitals have been damaged or closed”.

In addition to overstretched health services, the WHO spokesperson noted that one of two doctors killed at the weekend “was reportedly killed while working as part of a field ambulance service”.

Detained migrants and refugees ‘could be used as human shields’

Meanwhile, amid reports of clashes involving heavy artillery in residential areas of Tripoli, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, reiterated its fears for the safety of migrants and refugees held in detention centres.

“What we are concerned about is that these vulnerable migrants may be caught in the crossfire, especially when armed groups involved in the conflict, exercise influence or control over the detention facilities, these ad hoc detention facilities for migrants,” said Ms. Shamdasani. “Based on previous experience with Libya, we are also concerned that migrants may be used as human shields, or forcefully recruited to fight as well.”

Those concerns were echoed by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, whose spokesperson Babar Baloch, said that staff had been in contact with anxious detainees, who number 5,700 in official detention centres.

“We have spoken to refugees in detention centres who tell us they can hear the clashes, and many are really scared,” he said. “We are asking, advocating for the release of all migrants and refugees from detention and … seeking a guarantee for the safety of refugees and migrants as well.”

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