UN chief seeks probe into Libya mass graves found in Tarhuna

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep shock late Friday at the discovery of mass graves in Libyan territory recently liberated from forces commanded by putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and called for a transparent investigation.

The U.N. chief also called on Libya’s U.N.-supported government to secure the mass graves, identify the victims, establish the causes of death and return the bodies to next of kin. He offered U.N. support in carrying it out, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“The secretary-general once again reminds all parties to the conflict in Libya of their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Dujarric said.

The United Nations said earlier Friday that at least eight mass graves have been discovered, mostly in the town of Tarhuna, a key western town that served as a main stronghold for Khalifa’s east-based forces in their 14-month campaign to capture the capital Tripoli.

The discoveries have raised fears about the extent of human rights violations in territories controlled by Haftar’s forces, given the difficulties of documentation in an active war zone.

Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said the group was working to verify the mass killings.

“We want to be able to go in, or have the U.N. go in, and collect evidence of potential war crimes and other atrocities … so eventually a process takes place where justice can be served,” he said.

Last week, militias allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli recaptured Tarhuna, some 65 kilometers (41 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital, their latest in a string of battlefield successes that reversed most of Haftar’s gains. Earlier, the government said it regained control of all of Tripoli’s entrance and exit points and Tripoli airport.

Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister in the U.N.-supported government, said earlier this week that authorities were documenting evidence of alleged war crimes in Tarhuna, noting that preliminary reports indicated dozens of victims found in the city’s mass graves had been buried alive.

Bashagha also said that special investigative teams uncovered a shipping container in Tarhuna full of charred bodies, presumably of detainees, and blamed powerful militias loyal to Haftar for “heinous crimes.” A feared Haftar-allied militia called al-Kaniyat, notorious for its targeting of dissenters, had controlled the town.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters on Thursday he was “troubled” by reports that Tripoli forces had discovered bodies of civilians, in addition to land mines and other explosive devices in territory retaken from Haftar’s forces.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

Forces under Haftar launched an offensive trying to take Tripoli in April 2019, and the crisis in the oil-rich country had steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervened despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.

Haftar’s offensive is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The government in Tripoli is backed by Turkey as well as Italy and Qatar.

The U.N. political mission in Libya said it convened a meeting with a delegation from Haftar’s forces on June 3 and another meeting Tuesday with a delegation from the U.N.-supported government. Guterres hopes that a cease-fire will be agreed soon, Dujarric said.

Schenker said he sees the escalating proxy war between Russia and Turkey in Libya as a challenge to regional stability, as well as a “tragedy for the Libyan people looking for peace and end to foreign intervention.”

Libya is teetering on the brink of a new escalation as Tripoli wages a campaign to recapture the coastal town of Sirte, which would provide access to the country’s vast oil fields under Haftar’s control. The intensified fighting has forced nearly 24,000 people to flee their homes in the last week, according to U.N. humanitarian officials.

Libyan FM urges UN Security Council to refer mass graves to ICC

Libya’s foreign minister on Sunday urged the United Nations Security Council to refer mass graves discovered in the city of Tarhuna to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

According to a written statement published by the Foreign Ministry on its Facebook account, Mohamed Siala sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council.

He said that they had found 11 mass graves, in which some people, including women and children, were buried alive, in Tarhuna, a city liberated from putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s militias on June 5.

Siala, in his letter, asked the Hague-based court to initiate the necessary steps to probe the crimes committed by Haftar’s militias.

“The UN Security Council this time must adopt a determined stance against violations which were committed by Haftar’s militias and could be counted as crimes against humanity,” he said.

According to U.N. figures, eight mass graves have been found in Libya recently, mostly in Tarhuna.

The Libyan Army has recently inflicted heavy blows on the warlord and liberated Tripoli and Tarhuna from his militants.

The internationally recognized Libyan government has been under attack by Haftar’s forces since April 2019, with more than 1,000 killed in the violence.

The government launched Operation Peace Storm in March to counter attacks on the capital and recently regained strategic locations, including al-Watiya air base.

Libya’s government was founded in 2015 under a U.N.-led agreement, but efforts for a long-term political settlement failed due to the military offensive by Haftar’s forces.

Turkey’s role

Turkey has clearly supported the United Nations-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against the putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya since the civil war started in the country.

Ankara has focused its efforts on pushing Haftar into a cease-fire. To this end, the nation has intensified the military and logistical support it provides to the GNA.

This strategy saw results last week. The GNA made significant gains against Haftar’s forces and captured several strategic points. Al-Watiya air base near the Tunisian border is now in their control as well as Tripoli International Airport. With these gains, the GNA is in command in and around Tripoli.

These clear defeats have made Haftar ask for a cease-fire and go back to the negotiating table.

There is panic on Haftar’s side. His deputy, Ahmed Maetig, flew to Moscow and Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said: “By taking back the coastline from Tripoli to Tunisia, recapturing international airports and making further gains through air and land operations, the GNA essentially proved that Haftar cannot win this war. The parties who have been supporting a cease-fire in Libya should now focus their efforts on securing a political solution on the conflict.”

A big step has now been taken, but what will happen next? Ankara aims to consolidate support from NATO and the U.S. and to agree on a political solution that is not lost in endless negotiations. President Donald Trump’s strategy on Libya, however, seems to be vague. He has been sending support signals to both sides but seems to have chosen to be on the stronger side with the GNA.

Russian mercenaries

A military spokesman for the Libyan Army said Sunday that Russian mercenaries fighting for warlord Khalifa Haftar have set booby-traps to prevent the Libyan Army from advancing into the central city of Sirte.

“Our sources inside the city confirm that Russian mercenaries have planted bombs inside and outside homes…to prevent our forces from advancing into the city,” spokesman Abdul-Hadi Dara said in a statement on Facebook.

The same tactic was used by Haftar’s militias in Tripoli and Tarhuna, which was recently captured by the Libyan army from forces loyal to the Libyan warlord.

The Libyan army recently inflicted heavy blows to Haftar and liberated Tripoli and Tarhuna, in addition to other strategic locations, including Al-Watiya airbase from his militia.

The internationally recognized government has been under attack by Haftar’s forces since April 2019, with more than 1,000 killed in the violence.