Clashes leave 23 dead in the Libyan capital, raising fears of a new armed conflict

Clashes between militias supporting rival governments in Libya have left at least 23 people dead, including 17 civilians, and damaged six hospitals in Tripoli, raising fears that a political crisis could escalate into another major armed conflict.

Fighting had broken out overnight and intensified in the morning, with small arms fire, heavy machine guns and mortars deployed in central areas.

Columns of black smoke rose across the Tripoli skyline and gunfire and explosions echoed through the air.

More than 95 people were injured in the fighting, the health ministry said. He added that 64 families had been evacuated from areas around the fighting.

Sustained fighting in the city for control of the government would likely plunge Libya back into all-out war after two years of relative peace that led to an aborted political process to hold national elections.

The oil-rich nation descended into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Among the victims was Mustafa Baraka, a comedian known for his social media videos mocking militias and corruption.

Mr Baraka died after being shot in the chest, according to Malek Merset, spokesman for the emergency services.

Mr Merset said emergency services were still trying to evacuate wounded and civilians trapped in the fighting which broke out overnight and continued on Saturday.

The health ministry said in a statement that hospitals and medical centers in the capital were bombed and ambulance teams were not allowed to evacuate civilians, in acts that “constitute crimes of war”.

The Tripoli City Council blamed the ruling political class for the deteriorating situation in the capital and urged the international community to “protect civilians in Libya”.

The violence has caused widespread panic among Tripoli residents. Footage leaked online showed burnt-out cars and buildings riddled with bullets, as well as a burning mosque.

Other images showed damage to homes and government facilities, the deployment of militia forces and heavy fire in the night sky.

The UN mission in Libya said the fighting involved “medium and heavy indiscriminate shelling of civilian-populated neighborhoods” in Tripoli.

The mission called for an immediate ceasefire and for all parties in Libya to “refrain from using any form of hate speech and incitement to violence”.

The violence has caused widespread panic among Tripoli residents.(AFP: Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency)

Libya’s rival governments

Libya’s power struggle has pitted the Tripoli-based National Unity Government (GNU) under Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah against a rival administration under Fathi Bashagha that is backed by the eastern-based parliament and strongman military Khalifa Haftar.

Mr. Dbeibah and Mr. Bashagha are supported by militias.

Forces aligned with Mr. Bashagha tried to take territory in Tripoli from several directions on Saturday.

In Janzour, northwest of Tripoli, a main access point for some pro-Bashagha forces, locals reported intense clashes.

South of Tripoli, witnesses from Abu Salim district said there was heavy gunfire, while an eyewitness said a main convoy of more than 300 vehicles affiliated with Mr Bashagha left towards Tripoli from the northeast.

Eyewitnesses said he had since returned to his base in Misrata.

Turkey, which has a military presence around Tripoli and helped forces in the city fight off an eastern assault in 2020 with drone strikes, called for an immediate ceasefire and said “we let’s continue to support our Libyan brothers”.

Mr Dbeibah’s government was installed as part of a UN-led peace process following a previous wave of violence.

Despite strong support from the east, Mr. Bashagha has so far been unable to take office in Tripoli, as Mr. Dbeibah has insisted on handing power only to an elected government.

An attempt in May by Mr. Bashagha to install his government in Tripoli sparked clashes that ended in his withdrawal from the capital.

Mr Dbeibah’s GNU said negotiations were underway to “hold elections at the end of the year to resolve the political crisis”, but that Mr Bashagha had “resigned at the last moment”.

Mr Bashagha denied such talks had taken place and accused Mr Dbeibah’s “illegitimate” administration of “clinging to power”.

US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland urged de-escalation “before things get worse” and Libyan parties to agree on an early date for elections.