A general view of Derna city, Libya, February 9, 2019. 

© 2019 Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

(Tunis) – Forces allied with one of Libya’s two competing governments who appear to have defeated local fighters in the Old City quarter of Derna, in eastern Libya, should immediately allow aid and medical workers into the area, Human Rights Watch said today. Civilians are credibly reported to have been trapped there within the past two weeks without access to food, water, or medical care. Any remaining civilians should be allowed to leave.

The forces of General Khalifa Hiftar, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), should also disclose immediately the names of anyone it has detained during operations to take the city, who may number in the hundreds, according to United Nations reporting and one unconfirmed and partial list of names obtained by Human Rights Watch. They should indicate the location of all detainees and the legal basis for detaining them and ensure them due process before a judge as quickly as possible.

“With clashes in Derna subsiding, Gen. Hiftar’s forces should end the nightmare for any trapped civilians and account for the people in its custody,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Gen. Hiftar is allied with a government based in Al-Bayda, in eastern Libya, that is competing for power with a UN-recognized government in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. The UN is trying to broker a peace agreement. Much of Libya is effectively under the control of local armed groups, some with ties to one or the other of the rival governments.

LNA forces besieging Derna’s Old City quarter appear to have made advances in the past two weeks, according to UN reporting and Human Rights Watch sources.

At least four women and three infants in the Old City have been reported killed during fighting there since February 2, 2019, according to a February 10 statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The Libyan Red Crescent’s Derna branch has said via its Facebook page that it has removed 59 bodies from the Old City since February 2, without detailing their identities or the time and manner of their deaths.

Reliable information about developments in Derna is scarce. Few aid groups and journalists for international media have visited Derna in recent months, and LNA forces have tightly controlled access to the Old City. Local residents are afraid to speak on the record, fearing reprisals against themselves or relatives.

The LNA opened its offensive in Derna, a coastal city of over 100,000 residents, in May 2018 against the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), a local armed group that renamed itself the Derna Protection Force (DPF). LNA forces captured most of the city, then besieged the Old City, where a group of DPF fighters held out alongside civilians.

The LNA, which came together in 2014 under Gen. Hiftar, has taken control of much of eastern Libya in what he has portrayed as a campaign against terrorist groups, a term the LNA has used to describe the DPF in Derna.

It’s unclear how many local fighters and civilians remain inside the Old City. LNA forces deployed there have severely restricted movement of people and goods, preventing the delivery of food, water, fuel, and medical care to those inside, according to sources and UN reporting. The Hiftar forces are known to have allowed aid distribution elsewhere in Derna.

Since May 2018, LNA forces in Derna have allegedly detained people arbitrarily, and are believed to control detention facilities across eastern Libya in which hundreds of Derna residents are held incommunicado, without formal charge and at risk of mistreatment, according to sources and UN reports. LNA forces have detained Derna residents at their homes, and at checkpoints and other public places, sources said.

LNA forces have also deliberately damaged homes, including by arson, or turned them over to LNA supporters after their owners had fled, according to sources and UN reporting that cites claims by people who fled Derna. The scale of any such abuses is unclear.

Around two thousand or more Derna residents who fled fighting since May 2018 are displaced elsewhere in the country, in many cases citing fear of persecution by LNA forces for their community or family ties, perceived political views, or both, according to recent UN data and reporting that cites claims by displaced Derna residents.

The laws of war require all parties to a conflict to do the utmost possible to minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects, to facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian relief for civilians in need, and to protect humanitarian workers from attack, harassment, intimidation, and arbitrary detention.

The laws of war do not prohibit sieges of enemy forces. However, starving civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime. All parties to a conflict should facilitate the safe movement of civilians, in particular to escape a zone of fighting or a siege.

The LNA should presume that anyone it might screen as they leave besieged areas is a civilian unless there is evidence to the contrary. Any screening process should be limited to hours, and the LNA should grant anyone it detains all protection for detainees provided under Libyan and international law.

Under the laws of war, the LNA must take all steps to find, identify, and dispose of the dead with respect, and to mark any grave, or ensure that a competent second party does so. It should ensure that remains are returned to families if possible and requested, and that personal effects are always returned.

LNA forces have a record of alleged buses, some of which constitute war crimes. Abuses include summary executions, some of which have been captured on videos posted online; torture; desecration of bodies; and looting and burning homes.

“The LNA should investigate allegations of abuse by its members and hold those responsible accountable,” Whitson said. “It should also ensure safe conditions for Derna residents displaced by the fighting to return home.”