David D. Kirkpatrick
c.2020 The New York Times Company
A cease-fire in the Libyan civil war has collapsed and foreign shipments to the combatants have resumed, shredding the work of a conference of world leaders who convened in Berlin just eight days ago.
“Battles are raging on all front lines,” Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for the military forces based in eastern Libya, told reporters over the weekend, according to Reuters.
The United Nations had already warned Friday of “continued blatant violations of the arms embargo” by unnamed foreign powers who had pledged just days earlier to stop supplying weapons to Libyan clients.
In a statement, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya said, “Over the last 10 days, numerous cargo and other flights have been observed landing at Libyan airports in the western and eastern parts of the country providing the parties with advanced weapons, armored vehicles, advisers and fighters.”
“The mission condemns these ongoing violations, which risk plunging the country into a renewed and intensified round of fighting,” it added.
The end of the cease-fire and the resumption of weapons shipments are grave blows to the U.N.’s attempts to resolve the conflict. But they are also setbacks for rival peace efforts by the leaders of Russia and Turkey, important backers of the two warring sides in the Libya fight. The two leaders had attempted to upstage the U.N. by privately negotiating a truce, but they have failed to impose it on their Libyan clients.
Libya has struggled for nearly nine years to shake off the chaos that followed the four-decade rule of Moammar Gadhafi, toppled in 2011 by an Arab Spring revolt supported by NATO airstrikes. The fighting has shaken world energy markets by threatening access to Libya’s large supplies of oil and gas. The mayhem has also turned the country’s long Mediterranean coastline into a departure point for tens of thousands of Europe-bound migrants and made its vast deserts a haven for bands of extremists.
The current round of conflict began last April when forces based in eastern Libya and backing military leader Khalifa Hifter began an assault on the capital, Tripoli. The city is the headquarters of a U.N.-sponsored provisional government, and a coalition of militias based in western Libya has rushed to defend it against Hifter.
The United Arab Emirates, which sees Hifter as a strongman who might restore order, has been a major supplier of weaponry to his forces and has sent fighter jets to back him. Analysts following the Libyan war have detected a surge in flights from UAE to Hifter’s territory in recent days, raising questions about whether the Emiratis were supplying him for a new round of fighting.
Russia has also become a major backer of Hifter. The Kremlin has sent as many as 1,400 mercenaries with private security company Wagner Group to aid his assault on Tripoli.
On the other side, Turkey has been the main military backer of the forces defending Tripoli. In recent weeks, Ankara has also begun sending hundreds of fighters from Turkish-backed Syrian militias to join the defense of Tripoli, transporting them from one quagmire to another. Officials of the Tripoli government have said that the fighters are Arabic-speaking Turkish nationals from the area near the Syrian border, but recent news reports suggest that the fighters are Syrian-born and may have received Turkish citizenship.
In its statement Friday, the U.N. mission to Libya said that it “deeply regrets the continued blatant violations of the arms embargo in Libya, even after the commitments made in this regard by concerned countries during the International Conference on Libya in Berlin.”
The leaders of both sides of the Libyan fight have said that they continue to uphold the cease-fire. But both have also said that they were retaliating against rivals’ attacks.
In reality, sporadic fighting around the outskirts of Tripoli had continued throughout the cease-fire. By the end of the weekend, however, the clashes had escalated.
The U.N. mission said in a statement Sunday that two missiles had hit the Mitiga International Airport, which serves Tripoli, wounding at least two civilians and damaging buildings. Repeated attacks have often “deprived two million residents in the capital of their only functioning airport,” the mission said.
By Monday, fighting had also resumed on another front between the coastal city of Sirte, captured in recent weeks by Hifter’s forces, and the city of Misrata, home of the most potent militias defending Tripoli.
A spokesman for Hifter said his forces near Sirte had been forced to respond “after noticeable movements by terrorists in the area.” Hifter customarily uses the term “terrorists” to describe the forces defending Tripoli.