Tripoli’s worst armed clashes in a year have killed 55 people and wounded 146, Libyan media reported Wednesday, after a truce took hold in the capital and air traffic resumed.
Fighting raged from Monday night into Tuesday between the influential 444 Brigade and the Al-Radaa, or Special Deterrence Force, two of the myriad of militias that have vied for power since the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
In August last year, 32 people were killed and 159 wounded in Tripoli during battles between divided Libya’s two rival administrations.
Libya’s Al-Ahrar TV updated the death toll in the latest fighting to 55, citing Malek Mersit, spokesman for the Emergency Medical Centre, which handles emergency response in the country’s west.
Libya has seen more than a decade of stop-start conflict since the NATO-backed revolt that toppled Kadhafi.
A period of relative stability had led the United Nations to express hope for delayed elections to be held this year. The latest unrest shows how urgently those elections are needed, the European Union said.
The clashes with rocket launchers and machine guns followed the detention of the 444 Brigade head, Colonel Mahmud Hamza, by the rival Al-Radaa Force on Monday, an interior ministry official said.
Late Tuesday, the social council in the southeastern suburb of Soug el-Joumaa, a stronghold of Al-Radaa, announced that an agreement had been reached with Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah, head of the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, for Hamza to be handed over to a “neutral party.”
The council said on TV that a ceasefire would follow the transfer of the force’s commander.
Later on Tuesday the fighting abated.
Both armed groups are aligned with Dbeibah’s government.
Overnight Tuesday-Wednesday, Dbeibah visited the southeastern suburb of Ain Zara, which saw some of the heaviest fighting, accompanied by Interior Minister Imed Trabelsi.
Dbeibah “saw for himself the severity of the damage” as he toured the densely populated neighborhood’s unlit streets, his government’s press office said on its Facebook page.
He gave instructions for a survey of the damage to be carried out so residents could be compensated, it added.
The interior ministry put in place a security plan to deploy officers to battleground districts to oversee the truce.
The Libyan capital’s only civilian airport, Mitiga, in an area under Al-Radaa’s control, reopened to commercial flights on Wednesday, officials said. Flights had been diverted to Misrata about 180 kilometers (110 miles) to the east.
In May, the same armed groups had clashed for hours in Tripoli, also after the arrest of a 444 Brigade member, but only minor injuries resulted.
During the latest fighting, 234 families were evacuated from frontline areas in Tripoli’s southern suburbs, along with dozens of doctors and paramedics trapped while caring for the wounded, the Emergency Medical Centre said.
Human Rights Watch Libya researcher Hanan Saleh expressed outrage that armed groups continued to settle their differences with heavy weaponry in residential areas without being held accountable.
“Nothing will change unless there are consequences,” she said.
Libya specialist Jalel Harchaoui saw the latest fighting as a struggle over territory.
He said it highlighted the failure of the international community to address the problem of the militias and shows that “the past three years have been wasted” by diplomats, peace-building specialists, and others.
“Tripoli is a territory even more dominated by the militias than before,” Harchaoui said.
A European Union statement called the latest events “a vivid reminder of the fragility of the security situation in Libya and the urgent need for elections in order to find a sustainable and inclusive political solution.”
An election had been due in December 2021, but disputes including who could stand resulted in its indefinite suspension, although the UN has been working to end sticking points.
The 444 Brigade is affiliated with Libya’s defense ministry and is reputed to be the North African country’s most disciplined armed group.
The Al-Radaa force is a powerful ultra-conservative militia that acts as the capital’s police force.
Libya is split between Dbeibah’s UN-backed government in the west and another in the east backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.