Skip to main content

Libyan parliament calls for international help to halt violence

Plea comes after militias snub elected representatives' efforts to open talks, protect civilians
Tripoli burns as rival militias clamber for control of the capital (AFP)

Libya's parliament has called for international assistance to protect civilians in Libya as battles rage on in the country’s largest two cities.

Hundreds have already been killed in the fighting while thousands more have been made homeless, forced to flee to neighbouring towns and countries. Yet the decision for greater assistance does not appear to be an easy one, and it remains unclear whether the international community will head Libya’s call for help.

Libya’s newly-elected House of Representatives is fast running out of options. It appears to have turned to the international community only after all its calls for a ceasefire and for dialogue among the warring factions fell on death ears.

With even the militias that attest their support for the new parliament refusing to put down their arms, the House of Representatives vote earlier this week passed by a large majority. Of the 188 MPs present, 111 backed calls for international assistance.

"We [the HoR] called for a ceasefire, the Libyan chief of military staff issued a ceasefire order, and nothing happened," said Jalal Shwehdi a member of the HoR speaking from Tobruk in northeast Libya.

“Libya is a weak state, and we do not have a force capable of imposing decisions such as ceasefires."

“We have asked the international community to assist us in identifying who is behind these attacks, and they may have to use military force to stop the bloodshed and protect civilians, but we hope it won’t come to that," he added.

On Friday, the new UN special envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leo, announced the he intended to visit Tripoli as early as next week to seek a ceasefire between the armed factions but it remains unclear whether the international community will be spurred to act.

The international community played a key role in helping rebel forces end the 42-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya's 2011 uprising. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) jets demolishing Gaddafi's tanks and military convoys, with the UN Security Council authorising the strikes.

If NATO were to move again, it would be against the forces it supported and protected in 2011.

Since Gaddafi’s overthrow, facts on the ground have become very complicated and the rebel fighters who fought together against Gaddafi now fight each other for supremacy and full control of Libya.

Islamist and anti-Islamist militias have been fighting each other for months in the eastern city of Benghazi where the 2011 uprising began.

In May, retired General Khalifa Heftar started an offensive against Islamists in Benghazi who are thought to be responsible for the assassination of more than 300 army and police officers in Libya's east. The retired General hosts the support of the army, air force and Special forces units in the east of the country, while in the west some army units and regional militias are fighting for him.

The fighting soon spread to the capital on the west of the country's long coast as forces from the small, but strong, mountain town of Zintan announced their alliance to the retired general's offensive and began clashing with Islamist-led militias from the port city of Misrata, 200 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli.

The international community has condemned the violence that has resulted in indiscriminate bombardment of urban civilian districts in the capital and in Benghazi and has forced most embassies and consulates to close and evacuate their personnel.

However, with Libya deeply divided there is fear that any kind of intervention might only further fuel tension.  

“The parliament's decrees are not legitimate," Abubaker al-Huta, head of operations for Misrata’s Libya Shield forces in Tripoli, told the Middle East Eye by telephone.

The Libyan Shield Force was set up in 2012 to integrate former rebel fighters into a national force, but it has since clashed with other government-sponsored forces.

Abubaker, who is currently in Misrata gathering ammunition and supplies for his men in Tripoli, was confident the international community would not listen to the HoR.

"They can see we are fighting remnants of Gaddafi's regime and I’m sure they would support us like they did before," he said.

But for most Tripoli residents, an end to the violence is all they want.

"This has to stop now, people are being killed, and for what? They say to protect the revolution. Well this was not what I fought for in 2011," said Mohamed Kattaf, a Tripoli resident and former rebel fighter who laid down his rifle after the country was officially liberated in 2011.

"International support can be good, as long as it’s not Arab or African forces on the ground; we simply don't get along with them" said Kattaf, while complaining he had been forced to drive a hundred kilometres in search of fuel, which is now very scarce in normally oil-rich Libya.   

"If we're going to have any support, the guy doing it has to be blond and have blue eyes," he said, arguing that Libyan militias would only fear and therefore respect Western forces.

"The only night we had with no fighting was when the American embassy was evacuated" on 26 July, he said, explaining that with a few US military aircraft overhead, the militias didn't dare light a cigarette in fear of it being seen as a threat to the US.

"Not one bullet was fired that night," Kattaf added.

Even so, Kattaf felt foreign military intervention must be a last resort and that there was still a chance for a peaceful way out of the mess Libya has fallen into. "We just need to bring all parties together and really talk things out, not just sweet talk each other," he said.

Others are even less confident that foreign intervention will resolve the violence.

Kamal, a businessman from Misrata, said it would be wrong to use foreign forces in Libya in any form.

"It cannot happen, it's something we refuse," he said. "We respect the HoR and its democratic legitimacy, but I don't agree with the way some HoR members are hiding behind [General] Haftar in Tobruk," he added, referring to the HoR’s recent relocation

From Tripoli to Tobruk, near the Egyptian border.

“I think they are being controlled by him," said Kamal who did not want to give his last name.

According to various politicians, the HoR, which is based in Haftar-controlled Tobruk, have convened there as an alternative to Tripoli and Benghazi because of the violence. But some parliamentarians, with a more Islamist-leaning ideology, see the move as a political stunt intended to show support for Haftar, which they oppose.

Hanan Shalouf, who represents Misrata at the HoR, said: "Why not any other city in Libya? Tobruk is where Heftar sends his planes to bomb Benghazi with. They cannot convene in a city under the control of a man like him."

Yet for many ordinary Libyan’s the political squabbles are irrelevant.

"It's time everyone puts down their guns and ended our problems,” said Kattaf. “People are being killed.”

"We all love our country, but we have to know the difference between when it’s right to fight and when it’s wrong, and now it is very wrong.”