By Ahmed Elumami and Stephanie Nebehay
TRIPOLI/GENEVA (Reuters) – Casualties from the battle for Libya’s capital mounted on Tuesday while Islamic State killed three people in a desert town, illustrating how jihadists may exploit renewed chaos.
Medical facilities reported 47 people killed and 181 wounded in recent days as eastern forces seek to take Tripoli from an internationally-recognized government, the World Health Organisation said.
That was a higher figure than numbers given by either side, and appeared to be made up mainly of fighters, although it also comprised nine civilians including two doctors, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in Geneva.
The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s army – seized the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year before heading toward Tripoli this month.
They are fighting on the southern side of the city, where witnesses said on Monday afternoon the LNA had lost control of a former airport and withdrawn down the road.
The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal that Haftar boycotted, is seeking to repel the LNA with the help of armed groups who have rushed from Misrata in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.
Serraj’s forces carried out an air strike on an LNA position in the suburb of Suq al-Khamis on Tuesday, a resident and an eastern military source said, without giving more details.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a ceasefire, a return to a U.N. peace plan, and a halt to Haftar’s push.
Far south of Tripoli, the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for attacking the town of Fuqaha, where residents said three people were killed and another kidnapped.
Fuqaha is controlled by fighters loyal to Haftar, who casts himself as a foe of Islamist extremism though he is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mold of Gaddafi.
IS has been active in Libya in the turmoil since the Western-backed overthrow of Gaddafi eight years ago.
It took control of the coastal city of Sirte in 2015 but lost it the following year to local forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, and now operates in the shadows. The attack on Fuqaha indicated IS may be looking to exploit gaps left by movements of Haftar’s troops.
Libya’s potential slide into civil war threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scupper U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.
“There are fears that the civilian death toll will rise rapidly as the fighting intensifies and spreads into more densely populated parts of the city,” said Amnesty International’s regional deputy, Magdalena Mughrabi.
On Monday, a warplane took out Tripoli’s only functioning airport, and the number of displaced people – 3,400 at the last U.N. count – is mounting alongside the casualties.
Libya has become the main conduit for African migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, many of whom suffer torture, rape and extortion on their journeys.
Those who manage to board a boat to Italy risk drowning or being sent back into detention in inhumane conditions, according to the U.N. migration agency, which estimates that twice as many die in the Sahara desert as in the Mediterranean.
U.N. agencies say some 5,700 refugees and migrants are trapped in detention centers in conflict areas and fear some may be used as human shields or forcibly recruited.
“They tell us they can hear the clashes. Many are really scared,” U.N. refugee agency UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.
The LNA says it has 85,000 men in an army analyst believe has been swelled by Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders. Its elite Saiqa (Lightning) force numbers some 3,500, LNA sources say.
Britain’s junior foreign minister, Mark Field, told parliament on Monday that Haftar had support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and had spent 20 years in the United States so was likely to have good connections there. Field said he feared the new violence could foster support for Islamic State.
“My biggest concern, I guess, is that it is very evident that General Haftar’s position is that he doesn’t regard democracy as being an important way forward for Libya,” he said.
The U.N.-backed prime minister Serraj, 59, received telephone calls from Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and France’s President Emmanuel Macron late on Monday to discuss the crisis.
(Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi, Tom Miles in Geneva, Ulf Laessing in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Giles Elgood and Frances Kerry)