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Libyan Civil War - 2014

By early 2014 the security environment continued to deteriorate, and there was no significant progress in integrating members of brigades into an effective national army and police force or in the disarming of other armed groups. In addition, the management of the transitional period by the General National Congress and the Government was widely criticized within Libya.

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and military officials spoke out 14 February 2014 to dispel rumors of a possible coup after retired general Khalifa Haftar posted a video statement calling for a “road map” to a new government. Insisting his government and national assembly remain in control of the country, the prime minister criticized Haftar's "coup-like" comments. Haftar led all ground forces in the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Haftar commanded respect among the former Gadhafi-era military. He was a field commander in Gadhafi’s failed expansionary war in Chad in the late 1980s.

It was not immediately clear who may have been behind the retired general's call to oust Libya's current rulers, but one Arab analyst claimed Egypt and Saudi Arabia may be trying to encourage a more stable government in Libya to stanch the flow of arms across North Africa. Haftar's extended life in the United States and the West's apprehension of fundamentalist groups fueled speculation that the retired general enjoys Western support.

As of the beginning of 2014, the south of Libya was lacking in effective governance or security infrastructure. In this environment, tribal groups consolidated their control. Rivalries over political power, security, and resources escalated into localised conflicts. In January 2014, fighting broke out between the Tabu and Awlad Suleiman armed groups in Sabha. The then-parliament, the General National Congress declared a state of emergency and the Libyan National Army carried out airstrikes in order to regain control of the Tamanhind air force base. Sporadic fighting continued to take place in the south, particularly around the towns of Sabha, Al-Kufra and Awbari, involving Arab, Tabu, and Tuareg communities, many of whom were allied with either Operation Dignity or Libya Dawn. [In September 2014, further forces from Misrata were deployed to Sabha, which contributed to some reduction in hostilities].

The government said in March 2014 it had ordered special forces to deploy, within a week, to bring all rebel-held ports back under government control. The standoff had cut Libya's oil exports by more than 80 percent. Militias based in Misrata in northwestern Libya, known for their violence and independence, launched an offensive against the eastern rebels which could be regarded as the beginning of a civil war between western and eastern Libya.

Libya's electoral commission announced 20 May 2014 that it would hold national parliamentary elections on June 25. The announcement came as days of clashes between government forces and those loyal to a rogue general renewed fears of a descent into civil war. General Khalifa Haftar touted himself as a nationalist who is waging a war to save Libya from Islamic extremists. Fighting between his forces and their rivals has killed at least 70 people in recent days. Forces loyal to Haftar, which overran parliament days earlier, vowed to press their fight against what they call an illegitimate government, its Islamist allies as well as regional and al-Qaida-affiliated militias.

In the east, in May 2014, retired General Khalifa Haftar launched Al Karamah (“Operation Dignity”), reportedly to eradicate “radical…terrorist” groups from eastern Libya. An alliance of groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, joined the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council to fight forces deployed under Operation Dignity. Concerns were raised about airstrikes deployed in built-up areas and other indiscriminate shelling.

Haftar's forces declared Libya's interim government dissolved, sparking fears of a widespread civil war. Libya's army chief ordered the deployment of Islamist-led militias to secure the capital, but Haftar remained defiant.

The status of the country’s interim government remained uncertain. Heavy clashes between rival factions erupted in May 2014 in Benghazi and other eastern cities. In Tripoli, armed groups contested territory near Tripoli International Airport since July 13, rendering the airport non-operational. State security institutions lack basic capabilities to prevent conflict, and there remains a possibility of further escalation.

By mid-2014 many military-grade weapons remained in the hands of private individuals, including antiaircraft weapons that may be used against civilian aviation. Sporadic episodes of civil unrest have occurred throughout the country and attacks by armed groups can occur in many different areas; hotels frequented by westerners have been caught in the crossfire. Armed clashes have occurred in the areas near Tripoli International Airport, Airport Road, and Swani Road. Checkpoints controlled by militias are common outside of Tripoli, and at times inside the capital.

Six weeks of heavy fighting erupted in Tripoli in mid-July 2014, sparked initially by a reaction to an incident at a checkpoint in the Janzour area. Much of the initial fighting focused on Tripoli International Airport, with an attempt by armed groups affiliated with Misrata to wrest control of the airport from armed groups affiliated with Zintan. Both the Misrata-based and Zintan-based armed groups were nominally under the control of the Ministry of Defence. An alliance of armed groups, primarily from Misrata, but also from other towns such as Al-Zawiya and Gheryan, together with Tripoli-based armed groups launched Fajr Libya (“Libya Dawn”) against the armed groups affiliated with Zintan. The campaign included airstrikes and shelling of populated areas in Tripoli, resulting in considerable casualties, and a massive displacement of persons.

Rival militias battled for control in Tripoli at a time when a weak central government is riven by divisions between Islamist, tribal, and nationalist factions. July 2014 saw some of the country's deadliest fighting since former leader Moammar Gadhafi was ousted in 2011. Over 150 people were killed during clashes between Islamist-led fighters from Misrata and Zintan rebels as the groups fought for control of the airport. On 25 July 2014 the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced it had suspended operations at its embassy in Tripoli and moved more than 500 Turkish nationals to Tunisia. On 26 July 2014 the United States temporarily closed its embassy in Libya and evacuated the staff to neighboring Tunisia because of heavy fighting near the embassy site in Tripoli.

On July 13, a coalition of forces including a number of Misrata-affiliated militias under the leadership of Saleh Badi launched Operation Dawn to dislodge from Tripoli Zintani militias at that time rhetorically aligned with Hifter. Operation Dawn forces attacked Tripoli International Airport and a number of other Zintani strongholds. During the following weeks, Operation Dawn and Zintani forces clashed throughout Tripoli. Indiscriminate shelling by both Operation Dawn and Zintani militias caused extensive damage and numerous civilian casualties. On July 30, the ministry of health reported fighting in Tripoli led to 214 deaths and 981 wounded. The United Nations stated these numbers likely underestimated the extent of the violence.

On 27 July 2014 Egypt and several Western states urged their nationals to leave Libya amid spiralling violence. Cairo called on "all Egyptian nationals in Tripoli and Benghazi to immediately leave and save themselves from this chaotic internal fighting." There were an estimated 1.5 million Egyptians in Libya before Qadhafi's ouster. About two-thirds left during the war but many returned in 2012. In addition to the US and Egypt, Belgium, Malta, Spain and Turkey previously urged their nationals to leave.

By 24 August 2014, Libya Dawn fighters had gained control of the airport and other areas of Tripoli, forcing a withdrawal of armed groups affiliated with Zintan. Libya Dawn then expanded to the Warshafana region until Libya Dawn gained control over the region. Weeks of heavy shelling of the Al-Aziziya and Suwani areas between late August and early October caused a severe humanitarian crisis with more than 120,000 persons displaced. In the Nafusa Mountains, groups affiliated with Zintan launched a counter-offensive, attacking the towns of Kikla and Al-Qala’a. Air strikes were also carried out against Mitiga Airport in Tripoli, Misrata, and the Ras Jdair border area by the air force aligned with General Haftar.

Following the expulsion of Zintani forces from Tripoli in August 2014, Operation Dawn forces attacked civilian areas under the control of the Warshafana tribe, which aligned with the Zintan, causing additional damage and civilian casualties. Fighting continued between Operation Dawn and Zintani forces southwest of Tripoli, notably in the city of Kikla. Government officials at the time referred to Zintani forces, which included elements of the Qa’qa and Sawaiq brigades, as affiliates of the “Libyan National Army.” At other times officials used the “Libyan National Army” label to describe regular Libyan armed forces units that joined Zintani forces in repelling the Dawn offensive in the Nafusa Mountains.

Clashes were far heavier in Benghazi, where regular army and air force units had joined with the ex-army general who has launched a self-declared campaign to oust Islamist militants from the city. The Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia declared Benghazi an ‘Islamic Emirate’ on 31 July 2014 after claiming to have taken total control of Libya's second largest city, seizing military barracks with rockets and ammunition. The official spokesperson of the extremist group told local Radio Tawhid that "Benghazi has now become an Islamic emirate."

The announcement was denounced by pro-government militia forces. "The national Libyan army is in control of Benghazi and only withdrew from certain positions for tactical reasons. The claim that Benghazi is under the control of militias is a lie," Khalifa Haftar, a former army general, who launched a self-declared offensive against militants in May.

Libya was engulfed in new political turmoil, with an Islamist militia openly challenging the legitimacy of the country's elected parliament, after its fighters took control of Tripoli's battered international airport. Dawn of Libya, a mainly Islamist alliance, seized Tripoli airport on 22 August 2014 after weeks of fierce fighting with nationalist rivals.

After seizing the airport in the Libyan capital, the militia from the coastal city of Misrata called 24 August 2014 for the old General National Congress to be reinstated. It alleged the parliament elected in June was complicit in mysterious airstrikes on Misrati positions at the airport as its militiamen fought rival fighters from the mountainous region of Zintan for six weeks for control of the key facility. The new parliament, based in Tobruk, 1,600 kilometers east of Tripoli, branded the Misratis as terrorists, along with another group, Ansar al-Sharia, which controlled 80 percent of the eastern city of Benghazi.

War planes targeted Misurata positions in Tripoli and Islamist-held territory in Benghazi. Misurata forces blamed the air strikes on Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP on August 25 that UAE jets had launched two attacks in seven days on Misurata fighters using bases in Egypt. US officials told the New York Times that the UAE was the source of pilots, warplanes and aerial refueling planes while Egyptian bases were used to strike Tripoli. The UAE had not commented, while Cairo denied any involvement. The US officials told the paper that this was not the first case of the two countries joining forces against Libya. In the past few months, a Special Forces team based in Egypt destroyed an Islamist camp in Libya’s east. UAE personnel were also thought to have been involved.

France called 09 September 2014 for international action to end the chaos in Libya, which is becoming a “terrorist hub”, according to Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “We cannot allow ourselves more time before acting,” he said. “The situation is degrading daily. Chaos is setting in and threats are getting clearer. There are threats to the stability of the Sahel; threats to neighbouring countries, some of which we hold dear – I am thinking in particular of Tunisia. There are threats to Europeans.”

Operation Dignity mounted a renewed offensive in Benghazi in mid-October 2014. Hostilities continued unabated, with increasing reliance on snipers, mortar fire, skirmishes and ambushes.

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Page last modified: 25-02-2016 20:40:10 ZULU