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UN evacuates 149 refugees from Libya as fighting rages near capital

UN agency warns that refugees face increasing risks as clashes near Tripoli show 'no sign of stopping'
GNA forces on the outskirts of Tripoli have slowed militia leader Khalifa Haftar's advance (AFP/File photo)

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) evacuated 149 refugees and asylum seekers from Tripoli to Rome, as the agency continues its efforts to save people caught in the fighting between rival forces around Libya's capital.

Sixty-five children, including 13 babies, were among those flown out of Libya on Thursday, UNHCR said in a statement, and all the evacuees were originally from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.

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Fighting around Tripoli began early last month, when Libyan militia leader Khalifa Haftar began an offensive to confront the internationally backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

While GNA forces on the outskirts of the capital have slowed Haftar's advance, at least 510 people have been killed and more than 75,000 others have been displaced in the fighting, according to World Health Organisation figures.

UNHCR said it has evacuated more than 1,000 refugees and migrants this year from Libya.

But the group warned on Thursday that more asylum seekers are entering detention centres in Libya - which the UN and various human rights groups say are rife with torture, mistreatment and other inhumane conditions - than can be evacuated.

"More humanitarian evacuations are needed," said Jean-Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR's chief of mission in Libya.

"They are a vital lifeline for refugees whose only other escape route is to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers and traffickers on the Mediterranean Sea."

In May alone, the Libyan Coast Guard brought more than 1,200 people back to Libya after they were rescued or intercepted while attempting to flee by boat, according to UNHCR.

Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers have attempted to make the perilous journey from the North African country to Europe for several years now, with scores dying at sea.

'No sign of stopping'

UNHCR said the fighting around Tripoli shows "no sign of stopping", and warned that the risk of people being caught up in the ongoing clashes is increasing.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry discussed the need for a political solution in order to "prevent further escalation" in Libya, Reuters news agency reported.

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Although the US officially backs Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj's government, Sarraj's administration has accused Western powers, especially France, of covertly backing Haftar.

Last month, after US President Donald Trump spoke on the phone with the militia leader, the White House said in a statement that Trump "recognised Field Marshall Haftar's significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya's oil resources".

Haftar, on a visit to France last week, rejected President Emmanuel Macron's ceasefire proposal. 

In an interview with the Journal de Dimanche newspaper, Haftar alleged that "private militias and extremist groups" were gaining influence under Sarraj, and vowed to continue his offensive until such forces laid down arms, Reuters reported.