Human Rights Watch warns of endangering civilians’ lives in Libya’s Derna

Fatayeh district in Derna

Forces under Gen. Khalifa Hiftar have started a land and air operation to wrest the eastern city of Derna from an alliance of militant armed groups, Human Rights Watch said today. All parties to the conflict are obligated to respect the laws of war and spare civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) under Hiftar’s command has enforced a siege on the city of 150,000 people since August 2016, to drive out the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), an armed group with an Islamist ideology that has controlled Derna since the ouster of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in April 2016. The group, headed by Attia al-Shaeri, recently renamed itself the Derna Protection Force. On May 3, LNA fighters opened a ground attack south of the city, two Derna residents told Human Rights Watch by phone.

“Derna residents, suffering under a military siege for nearly two years, are bracing for a possible drawn-out battle for their city,” said Hanan Salah, senior Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Senior commanders need to ensure fighters under their command take all feasible measures to spare civilians from harm.”

Since May 3, the fighting has extended to the eastern part of the city, including ground incursions and air strikes, mostly at night, against the armed group’s locations. There have been reports of fighters’ deaths but not civilian casualties. Hiftar said on May 3 that he had given strict orders to spare civilians, although past statements did not prevent his forces from inflicting significant casualties on civilians and mistreating them.

Since the outbreak in 2014 of conflicts around the country, initially three, then two, rival governments have claimed legitimacy. The United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, controls parts of western Libya in addition to the capital. A rival, the Interim Government, based in the eastern cities of al-Bayda and Tobruk, controls much of eastern Libya, with the exception of Derna and parts of the south. The Interim Government is linked with the House of Representatives and the LNA.

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