UN chief expresses shock at discovery of mass graves in Libya

The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has expressed deep shock at the discovery of mass graves in Libyan territory recently recaptured from forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar, and called for a transparent investigation.

The UN chief also called on Libya’s UN-supported government to secure the mass graves, identify the victims, establish the causes of death and return the bodies to the next of kin. He offered UN support in carrying out the measures, UN spokesman Stéphane 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 UN said earlier on Friday that at least eight mass graves had been discovered, mostly in the town of Tarhuna, a key western town that served as a main stronghold for Haftar’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 UN 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 UN-supported government in Tripoli recaptured Tarhuna, about 65 km (41 miles) south-east of the Libyan capital, their latest in a string of battlefield successes that reversed most of Hifter’s gains. Earlier, the government said it had regained control of all of Tripoli’s entrance and exit points and Tripoli airport.

Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister in the UN-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.

The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, has called for the Libyan government to secure the mass graves, identify the victims, establish the causes of death and return the bodies to the next of kin. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

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 Hafter-allied militia called al-Kaniyat, notorious for its targeting of dissenters, had controlled the town.

The US 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 Muammar Gaddafi, 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 to try to take Tripoli in April 2019, and the crisis in the oil-rich country has 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 — which sent troops and mercenaries to protect the capital in January — as well as Italy and Qatar.

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

Khalifa Hifter
Libyan militia commander Khalifa Haftar’s offensive is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. Photograph: Ivan Sekretarev/AP

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 militias wage 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 UN humanitarian officials.

Despite intensified diplomatic activity to bring the sides to the negotiating table, Turkey appears keen to shore up its presence in western Libya. On Thursday, Turkey’s navy and air force conducted military drills in the Mediterranean sea near Libya, officials said, an apparent show of backing for Tripoli.

The Turkish military said the drill was meant to test and develop Turkey’s ability to command and execute long-distance operations. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, said the manoeuvres took place in international waters and airspace off Libya’s coast.

The military said 17 warplanes, based in the central Turkish air base of Eskisehir, and eight frigates took part in what it called open sea training. The drill lasted for eight hours and took place along a 1,000 km (625 mile) route from the Turkish coast and back.

Turkey’s escalating support, including armed drones and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, signals its desire to gain more leverage in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara signed a maritime deal last autumn with the Tripoli-based government that would grant it access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, despite the objections from regional rivals Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Turkey has said it will begin exploring for natural resources there within months.