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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

United Nations Says Explosive Devices Kill 138 in Libya

By Heather Murdock July 08, 2020

In a video posted widely in early June, a man sits on the ground with blood on his face and one leg splayed to the side.

"Where am I?" he asks in Libyan Arabic, and the man holding the camera tells him he's on the Airport Road in Tripoli. His car hit an IED (improvised explosive device) and his companion was killed.

The United Nations says explosive devices planted in Libyan battle zones have left 138 people dead since the end of May and most of the victims were civilians. And while fighting in Libya has quieted in the past month, analysts say massive buildups of weaponry on both sides from international supporters could portend the outbreak of a full-blown proxy war.

On Sunday, another blast killed two humanitarian workers who were going house to house to remove explosive devices from civilian areas that were not long ago battle zones.

Twenty-two-year-old Amjed Bin Mahmoud works at a coffee shop in Tripoli. His childhood friend, Tariq, was one of the victims. After the explosion, witnesses told Mahmoud what happened.

"An old man said he was afraid to go into his house and asked Tariq to check for bombs," Bin Mahmoud says over the phone from Tripoli on Tuesday. "He said yes and they found a bomb and deactivated it."

But hidden under it was another one, which exploded.

"Tariq lost half of his face and his colleague was hit in the stomach," adds Mahmoud.

Both men died at the scene.

Bombs planted

The U.N. Support Mission in Libya says the bombs were planted by Libya's eastern forces, the Libyan National Army, which is loyal to strongman and de-facto eastern leader, Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar's forces have been fighting forces loyal to the western government, the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord for more than a year, after Haftar announced his intention to take Tripoli, the western capital, by force.

In early June, Haftar's forces withdrew from Tripoli and families started returning to the homes they abandoned more than a year ago.

Wasef Gelani, a 40-year-old salesman and father of four, went to visit his apartment two days after the withdrawal. Massive holes were ripped through the walls of his home. Everything of any value had been stolen, along with the infrastructure for city water and electricity.

"I brought my children to see the house but I held on to them tightly," says Gelani, in a Facebook audio message on Wednesday. "I've heard sometimes the bombs are in water switches, in drawers or even in toys."

A month after the first visit, Gelani is still working on fixing the house, and there is no electricity or water in the area. Even so, he says, he is cautiously happy to be preparing to go home and hoping the war is ending, not pausing.

"We try to put down roots in our lives again and again," he says. "Then someone comes to destroy it. We are tired."

Awash with weapons

Fighting over the past month has been mainly reciprocal strikes but analysts say the recent buildup of weapons in Libya could lead to a long, bloody international proxy war.

Turkey and Russia appear to be the current main players, but many countries have an interest in vying for power in Africa's most oil-rich country.

Russia supports Haftar, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The Tripoli-based GNA is supported mainly by Turkey. Both sides have sent weapons, air support and mercenary soldiers with Turkey tipping the balance in Tripoli, forcing Haftar's retreat last month.

"The stakes of this globalized standoff and the scramble for influence extend well beyond the shores of Libya," says Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an online conference on Wednesday. "But most of all, it's ordinary Libyans who have suffered."

Since the latest conflict began last year, more than 200,000 people have fled their homes and thousands have been killed. About a third of the population lived below the poverty line before the war began, and now conflict and the coronavirus pandemic have made everyone poorer.

"This war and everything else has also destroyed our mental health," says Bin Mahmoud, who lost his friend in the recent explosion. "We don't know what to do."

Walid Ghariani contributed to this report.

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