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Libya: likely war crimes being committed in battle for Tripoli - first detailed investigation

Rival militias have used their weapons indiscriminately and are likely to have committed war crimes in their fight for control of the capital © Amnesty International

Investigators examined 33 attack sites, interviewing more than 150 local residents

UN arms embargo being violated by Turkey, UAE and others 

‘What kind of war is this, killing civilians, families, in their homes? What can we do? May God help us’ - local resident

Warring parties in the ongoing battle for Tripoli have killed and injured scores of civilians in indiscriminate attacks using inaccurate weapons in populated urban areas, Amnesty International said today, following a detailed investigation into the conflict.

In the first in-depth field investigation in the area since fighting broke out in April between the UN-backed Government of National Accord and the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army, Amnesty spoke to scores of local residents at 33 attack sites in and around Tripoli, unearthing evidence of potential war crimes by both sides.

In its 32-page report, Amnesty shows that those unlawfully killed or injured have included children as young as two playing outside their homes, mourners attending a funeral and ordinary people going about their daily activities One distraught woman, whose 56-year-old husband - a father of six - was killed when a rocket struck their home, said to Amnesty:

“What kind of war is this, killing civilians, families, in their homes? What can we do? May God help us.”

This incident was part of an indiscriminate attack launched by the Libyan National Army on the Abu Salim neighbourhood late on the evening of 16 April. A salvo of six notoriously inaccurate ground-launched “Grad” rockets rained down over several city blocks, killing eight civilians, injuring at least four more and leaving survivors badly traumatised. 

Meanwhile, a Government of National Accord artillery attack on the densely-populated civilian neighbourhood of Qasr bin Ghashir at around 12.15pm on 14 May, hit a three-storey building, killing at least five civilians and injuring more than a dozen. The brother of 19-year-old Ahmad Fathi al-Muzughi, who died in the strike, told Amnesty:

“I was at home and my brother was standing outside on the street. The strike was massive; it sent a vehicle flying on top of another vehicle and for a moment everything was black. I rushed outside and there were many neighbours dead and injured on the ground; there were severed body parts. It was a shocking sight. Then we found my brother; he had injuries everywhere; he died. I couldn’t believe it.”

Government of National Accord airstrikes in Qasr Bin Ghashir and Tarhouna have also hit civilian homes and infrastructure, using FAB-500ShL unguided “parachute” bombs. With a blast radius of over 800m, this weapon is completely inappropriate for use in urban areas.

Some of the attacks documented by Amnesty were either indiscriminate or disproportionate - violating fundamental principles of international humanitarian law - and could amount to war crimes. In other cases, the presence of fighters at or near civilian homes and medical facilities endangered civilians there.

Neither the Government of National Accord nor the Libyan National Army have responded to questions sent to them by Amnesty about their lethal attacks. 

Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor on Arms and Military Operations, said: 

“Scores of civilians have been killed and injured as both sides use everything from Gaddafi-era unguided rockets to modern drone-launched guided missiles in attacks that could amount to war crimes.

“The international community must uphold the UN arms embargo, which Turkey, the UAE, Jordan and other countries have flagrantly violated.”

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, said: 

“Our on-the-ground investigation on both sides of the frontline revealed a systematic disregard for international law fuelled by the continued supply of weapons to both sides in violation of a UN arms embargo.

“All sides must take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians in line with the laws of war and investigate the conduct of their forces. A Commission of Inquiry should be put in place to pave the way for justice and reparation for the victims and their families.”

Airport and field hospitals attacked

Mitiga Airport - for months Tripoli’s only functioning airport - is now closed after being repeatedly targeted by Libyan National Army attacks. Nearby civilian homes and a school have also been struck, in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks. Amnesty experts examined craters and munitions fragments at several of these strike sites, pointing to the use of large unguided explosive weapons. 

Libyan National Army attacks have also damaged or destroyed several ambulances and field hospitals used to treat wounded fighters. Medical workers and facilities - including those treating sick or wounded fighters - have special protection under international humanitarian law and should not be targeted. 

Amnesty has also found that Government of National Accord fighters have used field hospitals and medical facilities for military purposes, thereby rendering them vulnerable to attacks. The deadliest such attack was a missile strike on a field hospital near the closed Tripoli International Airport on 27 July that killed five medics and rescuers, and injured eight more. Based on Blue Arrow 7 munition fragments found at the site and other evidence, Amnesty has determined that the strike was launched by a Chinese Wing Loong armed drone - which the United Arab Emirates has been operating on behalf of the Libyan National Army. Amnesty has also established that the facility was not marked as a medical facility and had been used by fighters for eating and other purposes.

Despite a comprehensive UN arms embargo in place on Libya since 2011, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have been supporting the Libyan National Army and Government of National Accord, respectively, through illicit arms transfers and direct military support.

According to UN statistics, the fighting over the last six months has killed and wounded more than 100 civilians - including dozens of detained migrants and refugees - and has displaced more than 100,000 people.

Amnesty’s investigation

Amnesty investigators were on the ground in Libya during 1-14 August, visiting both sides of the conflict in and around Tripoli, Tajoura, Ain Zara, Qasr Bin Ghashir and Tarhouna. They interviewed 156 residents, including survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims, as well as local officials, medical workers and members of militias. Amnesty experts in remote sensing, weapons and ordnance, photographic and video verification, and members of its Digital Verification Corps, also carried out an open-source investigation into many of the strikes. 

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