Libya: Haftar Ramps Up Offensive as Coronavirus Arrives

Late March saw the expected – and much feared – first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Libya, along with the fiercest bombardment of Tripoli since Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive to capture the city last April. The individual who contracted the virus is understood to be a male Libyan national who is currently being kept in isolation at Tripoli Central Hospital. Returning to Libya from Saudi Arabia on 5 March, he was quarantined after showing symptoms.

The National Center for Disease Control (CNDC) has tried to assuage concerns among the wider population. Its director posted a video message on Facebook following reports of the diagnosis, saying that the patient was on the mend. He also claimed that the latter would make a full recovery in a matter of days. Some diplomats are concerned that they may not be getting the full picture from Libyan officials, who are keen to play down the chances of the virus spreading in order to prevent panic.

The continuing political power struggle also means that the Government of National Accord (GNA) and its rivals in the east have an interest in demonstrating that they are in control of the situation while their opponents are not. The CNDC said this week that four other suspected cases had tested negative. The GNA has launched a call for doctors and medical personnel to volunteer to help out in hospitals and other medical facilities. Both the GNA and its eastern rivals have declared nighttime curfews, and the country’s borders have been closed. The GNA’s health ministry said that it will introduce further restrictions – related to social distancing – after the first domestic coronavirus death is recorded.

Meanwhile, the UN issued yet another toothless call for “immediate de-escalation” following what Tripoli residents described as the most intense bombardment since the war began last April. The fact that the fierce shelling began shortly after news broke of the confirmed coronavirus case angered many Tripoli residents; the shock of the virus news was followed by fears that people may have to flee their homes. The number displaced from Tripoli due to the almost yearlong war is in the hundreds of thousands and continues to grow. A number of civilian deaths over the past week, including those of several children, has also prompted anger.

This week saw renewed fighting south of Tripoli and clashes over the Watiya air base near Zintan. The GNA’s forces also announced the launch of several military operations in response to what it said were repeated violations of the UN-brokered humanitarian truce. The key operation – to take Watiya air base – had long been planned, and it was an open secret in Tripoli that Osama Juwaili, the commander of the GNA’s western military region, saw it as a priority. Juwaili is from Zintan, close to where Watiya is located.

Situated around 140km southwest of Tripoli, the air base has been under Haftar’s control since 2014 and is considered a crucial asset for his effort to capture the capital, particularly after he lost his forward operating base in Gherian last summer. In a statement, Juwaili claimed that his forces had captured several members of “terrorist militias, including foreign mercenaries” – a reference to Haftar’s forces – and that the Watiya offensive was in response to the “continuous shelling” by Haftar’s camp of Tripoli residential areas. However, Juwaili’s forces failed to take the air base and Haftar’s commanders declared that they had repelled the attack. According to our GNA contacts, another move on Watiya is planned soon.

Our UN contacts are concerned that the belligerents, particularly Haftar, who appears determined to continue his destructive war, see opportunity in the fact that the world’s attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN mission has been without a special envoy since Ghassan Salame’s resignation, although the interim office-holder, Stephanie Williams, has been doing an exemplary job. In our view, Tripoli could well see a nightmarish scenario within the next month of further coronavirus cases, a health system that cannot cope, and a war that grinds on regardless.