While the world is gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, war-shattered Libya marks one year Saturday of its latest bloody conflict that is plunging it ever deeper into chaos.
Countries such as Russia and the United Arab Emirates have fuelled the fighting in the oil-rich but poverty-stricken North African nation where hundreds have been killed and over 150,000 displaced.
Medical experts warn that Libya is at heightened risk of the fast-spreading COVID-19 illness, given the deteriorated public health system in the gateway country for desperate Europe-bound migrants.
As much of the world has hunkered down, militias in the south of the capital Tripoli have kept firing bullets, mortars and grenades at each other, the explosions echoing across the city.
Libya has been gripped by chaos for almost a decade since longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi was brought down and killed in a 2011 uprising backed by several Western powers.
It is now split between the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and forces loyal to eastern-based putschist General Khalifa Haftar, who launched his offensive to try to capture the capital on April 4 last year.
One year on, and several failed cease-fires later, "we are simply witnessing the decimation of a nation," said analyst Jalel Harchaoui of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.
The United Nations' envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, threw in the towel in early March following the repeated failure of efforts to restore order, although he said his resignation was for health reasons.
A Berlin summit in late January saw Moscow, Ankara and other foreign players engaged in Libya pledge to respect an arms embargo and support a truce.
But barely 10 days later, Salame was denouncing violations and a continuous influx of foreign arms and mercenaries.
Turkey has been supporting the internationally recognized government, while Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have supported the warlord general Haftar’s campaign.
Turkey has repeatedly said Haftar must choose a political solution to the conflict and urged foreign powers to press the putschist general into a truce. It has also sent military advisers and trainers to help the legitimate government fend off Haftar's assault on Tripoli.
Ankara has said that it will abide by a U.N. arms embargo on Libya as long as the cease-fire is maintained, but it warned that it could also deploy troops if necessary.
Armed groups from western Libya are fighting Haftar forces "in an existential battle," said Wolfram Lacher of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"Haftar's forces are notorious for looting and summary executions, and they include groups that are motivated by a thirst for revenge against entire communities," he said.
"The fear of war crimes, of collective punishment, of marginalization under dictatorial rule means that the forces fighting against Haftar won't give up easily."
Fighting has intensified in recent days, despite the latest pledges by both sides to accept U.N. and international calls for a humanitarian truce to help contain the coronavirus.
The international community's "distraction linked to COVID-19 has accelerated and exacerbated this escalation which, in any case, was inevitable," said Harchaoui.
Libya has confirmed just a handful of cases so far, but the U.N. aid agency OCHA has warned it is "at high risk of the spread of COVID-19 given its levels of insecurity, weak health system and high numbers of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons."
A few days ago, the GNA even announced a counter-offensive named "peace storm."
Fighting is still concentrated south of Tripoli and east of the coastal city of Misrata after pro-Haftar forces in early January captured Sirte, some 250 kilometers (150 miles) away.
Fears of war and disease have piled on the misery for the displaced, such as Fatma Khairi, who has taken refuge in a school building in the working class district of Abu Slim, in the south of Tripoli.
"I have a lot of trouble with the communal toilets where often there is no water or soap," she told AFP.
"My family and I live in dramatic conditions that I can hardly describe to you. The situation has become unbearable."
The humanitarian situation is likely to deteriorate as the world faces a deep economic crisis and a further slump in the price of oil, Libya's main source of income.
Pro-Haftar forces have already shuttered the country's main oil fields and production has come to a virtual standstill.
A political resolution to the conflict seems remote, said both Lacher and Harchaoui, who agreed that the international community would have to pressure the outside powers, especially the United Arab Emirates.
"If no Western state agrees to contradict the UAE even a little, an even more serious deterioration of the conflict will be inevitable," said Harchaoui.
Lacher judged that for now "Western states are not ready to exert meaningful pressure on Haftar and the UAE. As long as this is the case, the prospects for a political solution are virtually non-existent."
-Timeline of the conflict-
On April 4, 2019, warlord Haftar ordered his troops to advance on Tripoli, the seat of the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
He supported a parallel administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk and his forces were already in control of the country's main southern oil fields.
The assault was ordered as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Libya for a visit aiming to cement a political deal on holding elections.
The next day, the Security Council called on Haftar's forces to halt their advance.
On April 7, Haftar's forces said they have carried out their first airstrike on a suburb of Tripoli, where the GNA is based.
The GNA announced it has launched a "counteroffensive."
Fighting intensified the next day.
On June 26, GNA forces retook the town of Gharyan, the main supply base for Haftar's forces southwest of the capital.
In late July, U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame proposed a three-point plan: a truce, a high-level meeting of concerned countries, and intra-Libyan talks.
On Nov. 5, The New York Times reports that Russia has sent some 200 mercenaries to support Haftar. Moscow denied the claim.
Ten days later, the United States urged Haftar to end his offensive.
On Nov. 27, Turkey and the GNA signed a military and security deal.
A U.N. report on Dec. 10 accused several countries of breaching a 2011 arms embargo by supplying the opposing camps.
On Jan. 5, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the deployment of Turkish soldiers to Libya, days after getting parliament's approval.
Turkey and Russia brokered a ceasefire that came into effect on Jan. 12 after months of fighting outside Tripoli.
On Jan. 13 in Moscow, GNA chief Fayez al-Sarraj signs the deal but Haftar leaves the next day without doing so.
Since then, fighting has continued, with repeated violations of the fragile truce.
On Jan. 18, forces loyal to Haftar block oil exports from the country's main ports, paralyzing Libya's economic lifeline.
The next day, at a summit in Berlin, world leaders committed to ending all foreign meddling and to upholding the 2011 weapons embargo.
Barely a week later, the United Nations mission to Libya slammed persistent violations of the embargo, saying the "fragile truce is now threatened by the ongoing transfer of foreign fighters, weapons, ammunition."
In late February, Salame lashed out at "cynics" he says are undermining talks and says he needs "much more" international support.
On March 2, Salame announced his resignation, citing health reasons, saying he "tried to unite Libyans and restrain foreign interference".
On March 17, the United Nations and nine countries called on Libya's warring parties to cease hostilities to allow health authorities to fight against the new coronavirus.
The GNA and Haftar's forces welcomed calls for a humanitarian pause, while the GNA said it reserves "the right to respond to daily assaults targeting civilians and public facilities."
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