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Coronavirus: Libya frees more than 450 prisoners amid virus fears, fighting

Artillery blasts shake capital Tripoli even as nation confirms five more cases of coronavirus, for total of eight
Customer pays from behind barrier recently amid concerns over spread of coronavirus in supermarket in Libyan capital Tripoli (AFP)

Libya's justice ministry said more than 450 prisoners were being freed to protect against the spread of coronavirus in the wake of the war-torn country's first declared infections.

Artillery blasts shook the capital Tripoli on Sunday even as the nation confirmed five more cases of the coronavirus, for a total of eight, Reuters said.

Judicial officials decided to "free 466 detainees from correctional facilities" in Tripoli, according to a statement by the ministry of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), AFP said.

The detainees were in pretrial detention or had qualified for conditional release, the statement added. 

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Authorities announced the five new coronavirus cases in the western city of Misrata, bringing the tally of infections confirmed in Libya to eight. The country's first case was confirmed on 24 March.

Other measures "aimed at reducing the overpopulation of prisons" will follow, including amnesty for elderly or ill prisoners and those who have served more than half their sentences, according to the ministry statement.

Human Rights Watch applauded the justice ministry's move as a "positive first step", but said "authorities should do more to mitigate the risks of a major Covid-19 outbreak".

Libyan authorities "need to be prepared to limit the spread of the virus in overcrowded detention facilities and shelters for displaced people," HRW said in a statement.

Libya has been plagued by conflict since the 2011 overthrow of leader Muammar Gaddafi. 

Since April 2019, forces loyal to eastern-based military leader Khalifa Haftar have been fighting to seize the capital in an offensive that has killed hundreds and displaced 150,000 people.

The conflict escalated last week when pro-GNA fighters mounted assaults on several fronts with clashes, bombardments and air strikes. Haftar’s LNA had earlier been shelling Tripoli.

Loud blasts could be heard in central Tripoli on Sunday from fighting in the south of the city, one of the fiercest front lines, witnesses said.

"If the Covid-19 pandemic spreads in Libya, the country's health-care system won't be able to cope with large numbers of patients," said HRW Libya researcher Hanan Salah.

Both the UN-recognised GNA and a rival eastern-based government under the control of Haftar have taken preventative measures against the spread of the virus, including closing schools, some businesses, markets and even private clinics.

The GNA announced an extended curfew on Sunday from 2pm local time (1200 GMT) until 7am, starting from Monday.