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Haftar forces seize women in Libya's Derna in push for surrender

Nine women, one 90 years old, have been kidnapped by fighters trying to crush the last pocket of resistance
Khalifa Haftar with LNA chief of staff Abdelrazak al-Nadhuri and former Libyan former prime minister Abdullah al-Thani at a military parade last month (AFP)

Nine women from Derna have reportedly been abducted by forces loyal to eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar since his forces launched an assault on the besieged Libyan city last month. 

Local sources told Libyan news outlet al-Nabaa on Sunday that Haftar’s “Dignity Operation” forces have arrested women from Derna as they tried to flee the city in recent weeks, in an attempt to force fighters still defending areas of the city to surrender.  

Commanders and prison authorities need to give clear orders ensuring the dignified and humane treatment of detainees and prohibiting torture and ill-treatment

- Hanan Salah, HRW

The women, including a 90-year-old and a 61-year-old, are being held in Gernada prison in the east of the country, the source said.

One of the women, named by al-Nabaa as Suad Makraz, was released on Saturday after being held in detention and interrogated for over two weeks.

Haftar's forces launched air and ground operations on the city in May, after laying siege to the city for almost two years.

Hanan Salah, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Middle East Eye: “All parties to the conflict in Derna are obligated to respect the laws of war and spare civilians from harm. Anyone detained should have a judicial review of the legality of their detention.

“Commanders and prison authorities need to give clear orders ensuring the dignified and humane treatment of detainees and prohibiting torture and ill-treatment,” she added.

An embattled city

Under Haftar's command, LNA forces have besieged Derna since August 2016 in an effort to drive out fighters from the Derna Protection Force (DPF), a militia made up of residents of the city.

The DPF is an offshoot of the city's Shura Council, which has controlled the city since ridding it of the Islamic State (IS) group in 2015.

LNA troops man checkpoints around the city, restricting civilians' entry and exit. For years residents have been subjected to sporadic air strikes whilst under siege, conducted by the LNA and its allies Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and have suffered shortages in basic supplies including food and medicine. 

Haftar announced last week that his forces had fully captured the city, a claim which the opposition in Derna denied.

Forces loyal to the commander - one of a number of factions that have vied for power in Libya since a 2011 uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi's four-decade rule - have sought to gain control of the city since the Derna Shura Council successfully took it from IS troops, claiming the Shura Council is a "terrorist" organisation along the same lines as IS. The LNA commonly brands its rivals as terrorists.

The United Nations has warned of the devastating impact of the LNA's siege and recent assault on Derna is having on the city's 125,000 residents.

Aid workers have repeatedly been denied access to the city to deliver life-saving assistance and basic supplies, including medicine and food, according to the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

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Haftar said on 3 May, at the start of the offensive, that he had given strict orders for civilians to be spared in the assault on Derna.

However, Human Rights Watch said previous statements did not prevent his forces “from inflicting significant casualties on civilians and mistreating them”.

Messages of support for the detained women have been shared on social media.

Translation: The women of Derna in Haftar's prisons, where are you oh Libyans while Haftar is capturing your women

Translation: They let ISIS [IS] go free before when they were in Derna, but now they are trying to strongarm its women. Women from al-Zahra in Derna are held captive by Haftar's 'army'

Meanwhile, a militia in the western city of Gharyan known as the "Rebels' Command" issued a statement condemning the arrests, and calling on the UN-backed Government of National Accord to act to free them.

"Do you accept your possessions to be stolen and your women to be kidnapped?" the statement asked. 

"What the criminal thugs of the Dignity Operation - the remains of the collapsed regime - have been doing has reached new levels of insolence... They have resorted to capturing the free, honourable, revolutionary women of the great city of Derna," it added. 

"This violent, terrorising escalation should shake any decent person to the core." 

‘Not surprising’

Mustafa Mihrik, a Libyan political analyst based in the country, said that Haftar’s use of abducting women as a means of coercing fighters to surrender should not be seen as a surprise.

“We have seen a rap sheet full of these types of crimes,” he said, referring to other LNA activities in the east of the country.

“If they [LNA forces] can exhume dead bodies, burn them and use them as puppets, we should not be surprised when they kidnap women and use them to bargain and coerce others to surrender themselves.”

If they [LNA forces] can exhume dead bodies, burn them and use them as puppets, we should not be surprised when they kidnap women

- Mustafa Mihrik, political analyst

Haftar's forces have been routinely criticised for their conduct during conflict.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) revealed on Thursday that it has issued a second arrest warrant for LNA commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli, who attracted international attention after videos emerged of him purportedly executing civilians and captured fighters. 

The first warrant, which accused Werfalli of executing at least 33 civilians and wounded fighters in seven incidents in 2016 and 2017, was the first time one was issued based solely on social media-sourced evidence. 

The latest warrant was issued over a video that emerged after the issuance of the first warrant in which Werfalli appears to shoot dead 10 prisoners outside a mosque in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city.

In April last year, LNA fighters were accused by rights groups of committing war crimes in Benghazi's Ganfouda neighbourhood.

Members of the LNA inspect the grave of an unknown person in Ganfouda in January 2017 (AFP)
Much like Derna, LNA forces besieged Ganfouda for nearly three years, driving its residents to "near-starvation", according to Human Rights Watch.

Under the command of Haftar, a retired general who served under the ousted Gaddafi government, from July 2014 Ganfouda was subjected to air strikes, mortar attacks and severe restrictions on its residents.

Libyan politician Guma al-Gamaty, head of the Taghyeer Party in Libya, told MEE following the accusations that fighters loyal to Haftar had disinterred and mutilated the bodies of people who had recently died in the assault on the neighbourhood.

"There has been mass murder of civilians, including women and children escaping the war zone... piling up of bodies and burning them. These are some of the examples of barbaric acts and violations of human rights that amount to war crimes committed by Haftar fighters in the last few weeks," Gamaty said.

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Concerns were raised by HRW regarding the possible war crimes in Ganfouda and other parts of Benghazi, and called on Haftar to launch a "full and transparent investigation into recent alleged crimes by forces under his command, including attacks on civilians, alleged summary executions, and the mutilation and desecration of corpses". 

Rights groups also highlighted the neighbourhood's lack of access to food and water, as well as the disappearance of civilians the LNA claimed it had evacuated.

"While bombs and shells continue to rain down on them, civilians are struggling to survive on rotten food and dirty water," Amnesty International said.

In September 2016, during the assault on Ganfouda, a video was circulated in which an LNA official appeared to suggest that no boys older than 14 would be allowed to leave the neighbourhood.

"The LNA is trying to force mothers to leave behind their 15-year-old sons in order to survive," Salah, HRW's senior Libya researcher, said in response.

In the video, the LNA commander said were "no honourable women" in Ganfouda, accusing them all of belonging to IS.

As previously reported by MEE, Haftar's forces have targeted rival militias while claiming to be fighting IS, calling in air strikes carried out by Emirati pilots and backed by an international anti-IS coalition also including French, British and US forces.