Libya violence escalates as shelling hits civilians in Tripoli suburb

Roland Oliphant
General view of a house damaged by an overnight shelling in Abu Salim district in Tripoli - REUUTERS

At least six people were killed and scores wounded when an artillery barrage hit a civilian area of Libya's capital. Witnesses described a “noisy and bloody” night of shelling in Tripoli, where troops loyal to Feyaz al-Serraj’s UN-recognised Government of National Accord are trying to hold off an offensive by general Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

The violence was the worst of the two-week battle so far and came as diplomats in New York began negotiations on a British-drafted Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire.

Airstrikes, presumably carried out by the LNA, also hit frontline positions held by troops loyal to the GNA during a day and night of intense fighting. 

The worst damage on Tuesday night was in Tripoli’s Abu Salim suburb, about 4.5 miles south of the city centre, where a volley of grad rockets slammed into a civilian housing conference around 11 pm local time.

Malek Merset, a spokesman for the health ministry in Tripoli, said at least six civilians were killed and 26 people wounded in the attack.

People carry a flag draped coffin of a victim of an overnight shelling, during a funeral at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli Credit:  HANI AMARA/Reuters

The bodies of victims were carried through the streets in coffins draped in the Libyan flag at a funeral in the city's Martyrs' Square on Wednesday afternoon. 

The GNA and LNA both denied responsibility and blamed one another for the shelling, which intensified the misery of around three million civilians living in the greater Tripoli area.

Ghassan Salame, the UN Libya envoy whose nascent peace plan has been all but scuppered by recent fighting, condemned the shelling as "a blatant violation of international laws."

A source in southern Tripoli said the number of dead was likely rise because several civilians had been severely wounded and that the fighting was widely expected to get worse.

People inspect damage after rocket attacks at the Abu Salim neighborhood in Tripoli, Libya on April 17, 2019 Credit: Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

"It's already messy and its bound to get nastier," the source, who asked not to be named, told The Telegraph. 

The UN estimates nearly 20,000 people have fled homes since the fighting began earlier this month. Fourteen civilians have been killed and about 36 wounded. It is unclear how many fighters on either side have died.

Members of the United Nations Security Council began debating a British-drafted resolution aimed at ending the violence shortly before the shelling began on Tuesday evening.

The draft text says the LNA offensive threatens Libya's stability and calls on all countries with influence over the two sides to use their leverage to stop the violence.

Gen Haftar, who presides of a rival administration based in the east of the country, has characterised his assault on Libya as a bid to root out jihadist groups and bring relief to civilians fed up with the depredations of various militia groups who hold sway in the capital.

Mr Serraj’s government has accused Haftar of attempting to mount a coup and sees him as a would-be military dictator who decided to seize Tripoli by force when UN-brokered reconciliation negotiations did not go his way.

Gen Haftar’s initial strategy appears to have assumed that combination of military momentum and deal making would cause many armed groups to change sides or remain neutral, allowing his forces to roll into the capital with minimal fighting.  

But the collapse of Western forces has failed to materialise and the LNA’s advance has bogged down in the southern suburbs after GNA troops were reinforced by powerful militias from other Western cities.