After a week of fighting and upheaval that saw militias switching alliances and migrants and refugees being caught in the crossfire, the United Nations brokered a fragile ceasefire in Libya — one the U.S. State Department welcomed on Tuesday in a joint statement with France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Roughly 50 died and hundreds more were injured in clashes tearing trough the Western capital of Tripoli when an armed group called the 7th Brigade stormed in the city from the southeast, attacking local militias cooperating with the Government of National Accord — the U.N.-recognized government there.
This triggered a state of emergency, with nearly 2,000 families fleeing their homes, the airports closed, and a jailbreak setting loose some 400 inmates into the mix.
There were reports that shelling had struck the compound housing the former U.S. embassy in Tripoli, causing a fire.
In reports citing a source at the Interior Ministry, Xinhua indicates that firefighters were unable to immediately reach the building due to ongoing fighting in the area, though a tweet from the embassy says the compound was not hit.
— U.S. Embassy – Libya (@USAEmbassyLibya) September 4, 2018
The U.S. has no ambassador in Libya at this point and reporting out of the country is sparse and sporadic.
What we do know is that, on the U.S. side, the Trump administration, which seems to be pressing Qatar and Pakistan on terrorism, is not factoring Libya into a long-term security plan.
In fact, the country is not even mentioned in President Trump’s National Security Strategy.
The big picture in Libya is grim: The self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) is active there, and the country is split between the government in Tripoli and the eastern government of General Khalifa Haftar, holding sway in Benghazi, and the Misrata Brigades controlling the west of that city.
The fight over the country’s energy resources has drawn and redrawn alliances, brought in foreign interests (including Russia) and has essentially left the country in tatters, plunged way beyond the chaos that gripped the country in 2011 that saw its dictator Moammar Gaddafi ousted.
Libya has been the focus of the European Union as a means of halting migrants and refugees from sailing across the Mediterranean towards their shores — at virtually any cost.
But the deal struck in 2017 that pays militia groups to stop migrants from sailing to Italy, instead locking them in detention centers in Libya, has consequences.
This week, many of those migrants have been trapped in the crossfire:
“Many of the detention centers in #Tripoli are on the front line of the fighting, and the latest escalation of violence has left people trapped for days in appalling conditions without food” – MSF head of mission in #Libya.
Libya is not a place of safetyhttps://t.co/PAHEYyOcEp
— MSF Sea (@MSF_Sea) September 4, 2018
The U.N. rights office is very concerned about the impact on vulnerable migrants stuck in Libya.
“Some of the nearly 8,000 arbitrarily detained migrants are trapped in detention centers in areas where fighting has been taking place, without access to food or medical treatment,” said spokesperson Elizabeth Throssel.
While the number of migrants and refugees reaching Europe has dropped, the slave markets in Libya have flourished and the number of those dying at sea has increased, according to the latest U.N. figures.
Of the 1,600 people who have died or disappeared on the dangerous route so far this year, 1,100 had set sail from North Africa. The UNHCR finds a direct correlation between what the E.U. is doing in Libya and the number of people dying:
New measures targeting irregular migration in the central Mediterranean, including further support for Libyan authorities to prevent sea crossings to Europe, further restrictions on the work of NGOs involved in search and rescue operations, and limited access to Italian ports for refugees and migrants rescued at sea since June, led to fewer arrivals in Italy, but a far higher death rate.
The last time President Trump publicly mentioned Libya was in a tweet in February 2017, when he named it as one of the Muslim countries from which refugees enter the United States.