Putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar said Wednesday that his forces would cease military operations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Libya, following a series of setbacks in his fight against the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the capital Tripoli.
Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for Haftar, said in a television broadcast that the cease-fire came at the request of the international community and "friendly countries." He warned that violations by the GNA would be met with an "immediate and harsh response."
After the U.N.-backed GNA launched Operation Peace Storm against Haftar's eastern-based forces, it made significant gains and ousted the putschist's militia from two key coastal cities west of Tripoli.
It comes at a moment of political uncertainty in the eastern camp, with Haftar declaring unilaterally on Monday that he was the ruler of Libya and ripping up a 2015 political agreement that has been the basis for all international peacemaking efforts. He claimed that he "accepted the mandate of the Libyan people," terming the Skhirat agreement of 2015 "a thing of the past." The agreement was signed in 2015 in Morocco, forming the GNA to manage the transition process in Libya.
Haftar’s declaration drew heavy criticism from the international community as many countries, including the U.S., Turkey, France and the European Union, condemned the act that effectively throws away any political solution. The United Arab Emirates, which backs Haftar, had remained silent in the face of this announcement but made a statement after a rights group criticized it for its support of Haftar in the war-ravaged country.
The UAE on Thursday called on all Libyan parties to commit to the U.N.-supervised political process to end the war, while at the same time saluting the eastern Libya-based army led by Haftar.
The UAE statement did not comment directly on Haftar's declaration. The UAE "commends the Libyan National Army for conducting anti-terror operations," a statement by the Emirati foreign ministry said.
Libyan government troops have been under attack by Haftar's militias since last April, and international efforts to enforce a cease-fire have proven unsuccessful. The aggression has intensified in the last few months as forces loyal to Haftar have killed civilians almost daily. They also have not refrained from attacking Tripoli’s hospitals, vital for the Libyan people fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
A health worker on Wednesday was killed in a rocket attack by Haftar's forces on a military hospital in the capital. That same day, they also launched six rockets at a field hospital located on a road to the airport in southern Tripoli, according to a statement by the press center of the GNA-led Operation Volcano of Rage. The attack inflicted enormous damage on the hospital and its ambulances. The statement added that the militias are continuously targeting hospitals and health staff.
The U.N. has urged Haftar’s forces several times to halt assaults on hospitals when they are most needed, yet the calls have largely been ignored. The U.N. condemned the attacks as a “clear violation of international law.” According to the U.N., as of March 2020, 27 health facilities have been damaged to varying degrees due to their proximity to clashes, including 14 health facilities that have been closed and another 23 that are at risk of closure due to shifting lines of conflict.
Moreover, the GNA has declared three airbases "occupied" by foreign forces. According to a visual slide by GNA military spokesman Mohammed Qanunu shared late Wednesday on social media, three airbases, Al-Watiya, Al-Jufra and Al-Khadim, are being run by foreign countries including the UAE.
"These bases are run by foreign countries to create chaos in Libya," Qanunu said.
The airbases are used as "launching pads for aircraft bombing civilian targets and state installations, which has killed hundreds of civilians, including children and women, and destroyed schools and hospitals," he said.
The spokesman said the liberation and neutralization of the three airbases has become a "religious and national duty and is a priority for our forces, because they pose a danger to civilians." Regarding Al-Watiya airbase, Qanunu said it poses the greatest threat.
"The countries that support Haftar have worked to make it (Al-Watiya) an Emirati base, similar to the role of Al-Khadim airbase," he said.
Qanunu said Al-Watiya airbase is currently under partial control of the GNA forces, asserting that efforts are being made to vacate it peacefully to avoid bloodshed.
"If not (vacated) peacefully, we will be forced to use force," he said. In Al-Jufra, the spokesman said, armed groups from Sudan's Darfur are present and Emirati warplanes and drones in the airbase located in central Libya. Al-Jufra "suffocates the south and separates it from the rest of Libya, as it cuts the food and drug supply from all the cities of the south," he said.
Regarding Al-Khadim airbase in northeastern Libya, Qanunu said: "The UAE has been occupying it openly and clearly since 2016, and reports of U.N. expert teams have conveyed to the world the full picture of the UAE's occupation of the airbase."
He stated that "many constructions took place at the airbase, during four years, including constructing aircraft hangers, a runway and accommodation building for foreign military personnel."
Qanunu stressed that "Al-Khadim base is the main operations room for foreign forces, and it is an Emirati base on Libyan soil."
'Turkish cooperation strengthened GNA'
The GNA has become stronger after the military agreement signed with Turkey, Libya's High Council of State President Khaled al-Mishri told Al Jazeera TV. Al-Mishri added that while the GNA was strengthened by the cooperation with Turkey, a better organization and association was established.
The deal signed between Turkey and the GNA in November suggests that the two countries cooperate in terms of security and defense industries, the fight against terrorism and illegal migration, as well as the security of maritime, airspace and land borders, and the prevention of smuggling. The two countries are also to collaborate in training and information sharing over natural disasters, conducting joint exercises, governance of personnel and bilateral official visits.
Haftar entrusts war criminal with recruitment
Haftar assigned an officer, Mahmoud al-Werfalli, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), to recruit new soldiers, pro-Haftar accounts on social media said. Accordingly, al-Werfalli went to the Bani Walid province, south of Tripoli, with a large amount of money for the recruitment.
Al-Werfalli was accused of murder as a war crime in Libya in 2016 and 2017, according to the ICC. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for al-Werfalli in August 2017 for eight Daesh-style executions recorded on camera in the Benghazi and Derne provinces. Videos on social media show the victims clad in uniform, blindfolded and tied. They were shot point-blank in the head after being found guilty in a mock trial. When the videos emerged in 2017, France, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S. called on Haftar forces to "ensure that the investigation is carried out fully and fairly; and those responsible for the unlawful killings are held to account."
Since the ousting of late ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in Libya: those of renegade military commander Haftar in eastern Libya, mainly supported by Russia, Egypt and the UAE, and the GNA in Tripoli, which enjoys U.N. and international recognition.
UAE strikes killed 8 civilians
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday an airstrike by the UAE on a biscuit factory south of Tripoli on Nov. 18, 2019, killed eight civilians and injured 27 others in an attack it called “apparently unlawful.”
“The UAE appeared to take little or no action to minimize harm to civilians in its attack and should conduct a transparent investigation of this incident, make the results public, and compensate victims or their families,” HRW stated in a report.
Since the current armed conflict erupted last April, the UAE has been conducting air and drone strikes to support Haftar forces. Accordingly, all casualties in the November incident were civilian factory workers, including seven Libyans and 28 foreign nationals, all of them men.
“The UAE attacked a factory that makes food products, with no indication there were any military targets,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. “The failure to verify that the workers there were civilians and that there was no legitimate military target would show recklessness and bad intelligence.”
According to the report, an HRW researcher visited the scene of the attack in December 2019 and documented material damage to the factory from drone-launched guided missiles and found remnants of the weapons. HRW did not observe any military targets in the area. The strikes damaged the building and destroyed a truck and a car. The factory stopped operating after the attack.
“At the strike site, Human Rights Watch found remnants of at least four Blue Arrow-7 (BA-7) laser-guided missiles that were launched by a Wing Loong-II drone. In Libya only the UAE uses this type of drone and missile,” it said.
According to media, U.N. and other reports, the UAE has carried out at least five other strikes that resulted in civilian casualties since April 2019, HRW said, adding that these include a July attack against a migrant detention center in Tajoura, near Tripoli, that killed at least 50 migrants and asylum-seekers of various nationalities. In addition to drones, the UAE has supplied Haftar’s forces with weapons, ammunition and other combat materials such as armored vehicles, in violation of a 2011 U.N. Security Council arms embargo.
The rights group wrote to UAE authorities on April 17, 2020, requesting information about any investigation they may have conducted into the drone strikes of Nov. 18 and any steps taken to minimize civilian harm. As of the time of publication, no response was received.
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