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(Beirut) – Rival armed groups have killed at least 18 civilians, including four children, since clashes broke out in the southern suburbs of Tripoli on August 26, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. Armed groups should urgently allow the hundreds of civilians trapped to leave and allow safe passage of humanitarian and medical aid and take all feasible precautions to avoid or minimize harm to civilians.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) under the Government of National Accord (GNA) stated on August 31 that 39 people had been killed and 119 wounded, a majority of them civilians, as a result of the fighting. The GNA Ambulance and Emergency Services told Human Rights Watch that as of August 30 at least 18 civilians were among the dead, including 4 children aged between 6 and 15. Several others suffered serious injuries. There are no confirmed figures of casualties transferred to hospitals outside of Tripoli.

“The recklessness of armed groups currently fighting each other for power appears to have no boundaries, and civilians are paying the price,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All sides need to do everything they can to spare civilian lives.”

Fighting broke out on August 26 between armed groups both linked to the interior and defense ministries of the internationally-backed, Tripoli-based GNA, who are fighting for control of territory and vital institutions in the capital. The so-called Seventh Brigade from Tarhouna, also known as Kaniyat, and lead by Muhsen Al-Kani, attacked positions of Tripoli-based armed groups. Those positions included the Yarmouk Military Base controlled by the Tripoli Revolutionaries Battalion (TRB), nominally affiliated with the GNA Interior Ministry and under the command of Haitham Al-Tajouri. Media reports say the Seventh Brigade, established by the Defense Ministry in 2017, is no longer affiliated with the GNA.

Local emergency services personnel say hundreds of families were apparently stranded because of the fighting. Around 60 families were trapped in an area known as the Suzuki Triangle, situated near Al-Yarmouk Military Base, without water or bread, according to Osama Ali, spokesperson for the Tripoli Ambulance and Emergency Services.

Migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers held in detention facilities run by the GNA Interior Ministry were also trapped by clashes. Representatives from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) told Human Rights Watch that on August 28, they helped the evacuation of around 600 migrants and asylum seekers, from two detention centers in areas affected by the fighting in Ain Zara and Salaheddin, and transferred them to the Abu Salim and the “Trig El-Matar” detention facilities. IOM said that as of August 30, seven migrants were still at Ain Zara facility. Their status is unclear. IOM also confirmed that authorities released 290 migrants as fighting began, showing again how precarious the security situation remains for migrants and asylum seekers and raising questions about the European Union’s efforts to outsource migration control to Libya, Human Rights Watch said.

Ali told Human Rights Watch that most casualties sustained major injuries through direct impact/penetration, blast, and fragmentation. He said 80 percent of casualties had traumatic wounds, including amputated limbs. Ali said the injuries were consistent with the types of explosive weapons used by the parties, including large-caliber mortar and artillery projectiles, as well as unguided Grad rockets and anti-tank guided missiles.

On August 28, a mortar shell landed on a house in Wadi Al-Rabeea, killing a woman and her two sons, aged 6 and 10, according to Ali, who was among the crew recovering the bodies. “The scene is difficult to describe,” he said. “We only found some body parts of the woman, and her two children were badly burned. They all died on the spot.” On August 30, emergency crews recovered the bodies of two children aged 13 and 15 after a rocket struck their home in the Al-Jdeida neighborhood.

Malek Merset, spokesperson for the GNA health ministry’s Directorate of Wounded Affairs, told Human Rights Watch that teams had reached some families in areas where clashes were taking place, and had evacuated some and provided drinking water. According to Ali, both armed groups had seriously impeded the work of relief crews and had on several occasions denied them safe passage. MOH reported on August 30 that a volunteer worker evacuating families from an area of heavy fighting was killed on duty.

On August 29, Ali said, the Seventh Brigade captured three ambulances from the Ambulance and Emergency Services, removed its crews, and started to use them. It was unclear what they were transporting with the ambulances.

Libyan authorities on August 31 shut Mitiga Airport in Tripoli for a period of 48 hours after rockets were fired in its direction and temporarily diverted flights to Misrata Airport, according to media reports. 

International humanitarian law prohibits parties from conducting deliberate attacks against civilians or civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks. It requires all parties to take constant care to spare the civilian population, and to facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, and respect medical vehicles at all times. All parties should facilitate the safe movement of civilians, in particular to enable to them to escape a zone of fighting or a siege. In the context of an armed conflict, serious violations of these standards committed with criminal intent could amount to a war crime.

Fighting since August 26 has been concentrated in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, in often densely populated neighborhoods in Wadi Al-Rabeea, parts of Ain Zara, Salah Eddin, Khallet Al-Furjan, and parts of the airport road. The other major armed groups fighting alongside the TRB include: the Abu Saleem Central Support Forces lead by Abdulghani Al-Kikli, known as Ghaniwa; the Nawasi Battalion lead by Mustafa Qaddur; and the Deterrence Anti-Organized Crime and Terrorism Apparatus, formerly the Special Deterrence Force, and lead by Abderrauf Kara. Misratan-led Brigade 301 is also supporting the TRB.

“Militias trapping families in areas of heavy fighting and stealing ambulances is no way to gain legitimacy,” Whitson said. “Commanders should know that they too can be held responsible for serious violations unless they act resolutely to stop them and punish those responsible.”

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