Military officers of the Libyan Government of National Accord inspect damage at the migrant detention center in the Tripoli area where 40 people were killed by an air strike. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)

Migrants in Libya: Fleeing Fear, Meeting Death

Dozens killed in air strike on detention center in suburb of capital city

More than 30 migrants were killed and 70 injured late Tuesday night during an air raid on their detention center in Tajoura, an eastern suburb of the Libyan capital Tripoli.

The Government of National Accord (GNA) and the “Libyan National Army” (LNA) accused each other of being responsible for the raid. For the past three months, the LNA has been engaged in an offensive to take control of Tripoli from the GNA, which has its own army.

Abd al-Salam Rajhi, a Libyan political analyst, told The Media Line that an hour before the incident, some media outlets funded by LNA head Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general, reported that the group was carrying out an air strike on Tripoli.

“When the news about the migrant incident came out, Haftar immediately knew there had been a mistake,” he said. “After that, the National Army announced that his forces were bombing a military camp in Tajoura.”

Rajhi theorized that the plane that hit the detention center might not have been given a specific target.

“[Perhaps] the pilot saw the migrants and thought they were military forces,” he said, adding that the bombing was the second such incident in three months.

According to the AFP news agency, officials from the detention center blamed the attack on Haftar’s forces while the Haftar himself shrugged off responsibility.

Libya has been undergoing a political and military crisis since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011. Two main factions are fighting for power: the internationally recognized GNA, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, which is based in Tripoli, and an “interim government” operating in eastern Libya that is headed by Abdullah al-Thani, who is supported by Haftar and his LNA, as well as the House of Representatives, based in Tobruk.

The GNA’s Presidential Council issued a statement calling the attack a “heinous crime” and asked the United Nations mission in Libya to condemn the “barbaric” act and send a fact-finding commission to the site.

Nizar al-Makan, a Tunisian political analyst and instructor at the country’s Institute of Journalism and News Science, told The Media Line that the bombing was the result of a new plan adopted by Haftar, who has been working day and night to capture Tripoli as quickly as possible.

“He’s depending on the air force to inflict significant damage, and plans to send in ground forces later,” Makan said. “Last night’s raid on the immigrants’ detention center is part of Haftar’s new campaign.”

He said the campaign was proving bloody and that Haftar was acting “insanely,” speculating that “the Government of National Accord is getting stronger, especially with the Turkish support and supplies it is receiving.” He maintained that Haftar knew his army’s campaign to take Tripoli had failed.

Makan added that for Haftar to take Tripoli, he needed a political solution, not a military plan,” which would merely “escalate the conflict and not resolve it.”

Turkey and Qatar are considered the most important supporters of the Tripoli-based GNA. In May, Haftar’s forces announced they had blocked access to all ports in the west of the country following news of a weapons shipment to the capital that had originated in Istanbul.

Alison Pargeter, an American analyst, told The Media Line that what was happening in Libya was part of a wider conflict that had developed between Turkey and Qatar, on the one hand, and Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, on the other.

“Egypt and its allies are backing Haftar because they see in him a strongman with a shared anti-Muslim Brotherhood agenda who can bring security to Libya, Pargeter said. She added that Turkey and Qatar were siding with the Tripoli camp, parts of which have an Islamist agenda.

“This is a battle for control,” she pointed out. “Haftar, who currently has much of the East and parts of the South in his hands, wants to control all of Libya.”

She added, however, that neither side was strong enough to defeat the other.

“This war of attrition is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, with the ever-present risk of the conflict escalating into full scale civil war,” she said.

The conflict was being fueled by external actors who were channeling weapons, money and political support to their allies on the ground, Pargeter added.

“This has been the case since 2014 at least,” she said, “and unless these regional powers can be stopped, the conflict will continue to rage.”

The United Nations confirmed in a recent report that since April 4, at least 2,200 people had fled the fighting taking place south of Tripoli and that many other civilians were trapped in the area and unable to access emergency services. The report added that the deployment of more troops around the capital and the increased combat operations would result in the displacement of more people.

Aid and relief agencies in the area said that there were enough medical supplies for about 200,000 people for three months.

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