Libya: ‘war crimes’ seen in spiraling militia attacks

Libyan militia forces battling for control of Tripoli and surrounding areas have engaged in attacks on civilians and civilian property that in some cases amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch said Sept. 8. Thousands of residents fled their homes during five weeks of fighting between the Libyan Dawn alliance, led by militias from the coastal city of Misrata, and a coalition of militias from the inland mountain town of Zintan. Human Rights Watch has documened a series of attacks by Libyan Dawn forces on civilians and civilian property since they took control of Tripoli, beginning with its civilian airport, on Aug. 24. "Commanders on both sides need to rein in their forces and end the cycle of abuses or risk being first in line for possible sanctions and international prosecution," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. 

Both sides appear to have committed violations that could amount to war crimes during five weeks of fighting sparked by Libyan Dawn's initial attack on Tripoli airport on July 13, HRW finds. The fighting, mostly in western areas of Tripoli, included indiscriminate firing by both sides. Since Libya Dawn got the upper hand in Tripoli, its forces have committed further violations, including against journalists, government officials, and civilians suspected of supporting the Zintan-led alliance, which is aligned with the Libyan Dignity operation. Libyan Dignity is the name of a military campaign in eastern Libya by former army general Khalifa Hiftar to fight Islamist militias under the Islamic Shura Council, including Ansar al-Sharia.

The Libyan Dawn actions documented by HRW include an attack on the private Alassema TV station on Aug. 23-24 in which fighters forced the station off the air, set the director's home on fire, and seized three employees, who remain missing. The homes and property of other people associated with Alassema TV have also been targeted,.

According to the Libyan government, Libyan Dawn militia forces attacked the home of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni on Aug. 25, forcing out his family, looting the house, and setting it ablaze. On Aug. 27, the government said, "criminal gangs" burned down the home of acting Transportation Minister Abdelgader al-Zintani.

In other cases, the militias targeted people from Zintan and supporters of Libyan Dignity, as well as people displaced from the town of Tawergha following the 2011 conflict because of the Tawerghans' alleged support for Muammar Qaddafi. On Aug. 30, armed men from the Libyan Shield Forces, a militia belonging to the Libya Dawn coalition, attacked a camp for displaced Tawerghans in Tripoli, killing one man and injuring several more. The militia groups, as well as the Libyan government, should take urgent steps to stop abuses against Tawerghans, some 40,000 of whom have been forcibly displaced, HRW said.

A Sept. 1 report by the Crisis Committee of Zintan's municipal council said that the Tripoli homes of at least 80 families from Zintan had been "attacked and looted," and that 80 men from Zintan had been detained, kidnapped, or were missing.

Both sides appear to be holding people seized during the fighting. Abdelmoez Banoon, a Tripoli-based activist, has been missing since militiamen apparently linked to Libyan Dawn seized him in front of his home on July 25. Suliman Zubi, a member of the former legislature, has been held by the Zintani-aligned Barq al-Nasr militia since July 21, his family told HRW.

The Tripoli local council reported on Aug. 25 that at least 12,600 families were displaced due to the violence. Officials of Tawergha's Tripoli-based council said on Aug. 29 that a majority of the 1,000 families in three makeshift camps in Tripoli for people displaced from Tawergha had left the camps amid deteriorating conditions and fear of attacks. A Sept. 4 report by the UN states that 100,000 people had been internally displaced by the recent violence in Libya and a further 150,000 had left the country.

HRW notes that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Libya since Febr. 15, 2011, under UN Security Council Resolution 1970. In a July 25 statement, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned that her office "will not hesitate to investigate and prosecute those who commit crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction in Libya irrespective of their official status or affiliation." However, the prosecutor has yet to open a new investigation despite ongoing violations in Libya that may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes.

On Aug. 27, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2174, broadening the existing international sanctions on Libya to include people who engage in or support acts that "threaten the peace, stability or security of Libya, or obstruct or undermine the successful completion of its political transition." Such acts include "planning, directing, or committing, acts that violate applicable international human rights law or international humanitarian law, or acts that constitute human rights abuses."

In Resolution 2174, the Security Council also recalled its 2011 decision to refer the situation in Libya to the ICC and reaffirmed the importance of holding accountable those persons responsible for serious crimes, including those involved in attacks targeting civilians. (HRW, Sept. 8)