The United Nations Support Mission in Libya plans to investigate allegations that the so-called Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar has used chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict in the country’s capital of Tripoli.
Claims that the LNA, Egypt’s primary ally in Libya, used chemical weapons first came to light on Wednesday night in a press conference held by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha. Bashagha asserted that fighters affiliated with the GNA were targeted with nerve gas when conducting an assault on strong points controlled by the LNA.
Acting head of the UN Support Mission in Libya Stephanie Williams described the allegations as “very, very concerning” in a press briefing on Thursday, saying that the matter has been referred to the UN Panel of Experts for investigation.
Bashagha accused the Russian Wagner Group, mercenaries linked to President Vladimir Putin who have been fighting alongside the LNA since late 2019, of carrying out the attack.
LNA spokesperson Ahmed al-Mesmari, however, denied that the LNA’s forces were behind the attack.
“We call upon all those involved in the Libyan crisis and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya to monitor this issue closely. We are ready to conduct an international investigation,” Mesmari said in a brief statement published on his social media account on Thursday.
Away from the exchange of statements, two paramedics on the frontlines told Mada Masr that they received three GNA fighters in the Salah Eddin field hospital in the south of Tripoli this week who were experiencing severe respiratory problems and muscle strain after a shell exploded near them. All three fighters were wounded and died shortly after being admitted to the field hospital.
The emergence of allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Libya revives long standing fears. Under the rule of Muammar Qadhafi, Libya spent decades trying to acquire chemical weapons, but, in 2004, it joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and began the process of destroying its stockpile. However, with the outbreak of Libya’s 2011 revolution against Qadhafi’s rule, the process of destroying chemical weapons was suspended in 2012. Nevertheless, in 2016, the GNA requested assistance in destroying the remaining holdings, and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons declared Libya to be free of any chemical weapons in September 2016.
While there is not conclusive evidence on whether there are chemical weapons still inside Libya, an informed LNA military source told Mada Masr at the close of March that members of the LNA’s 155th Brigade, which is active on the frontlines of the fighting in the south of Tripoli, had received training in the use of chemical weapons at a military school in the Tocra region of east of Libya before being deployed to Tripoli.
In her press conference on Thursday, Williams said that Libya is turning into a testing ground for the use of “new types of weapons,” citing the use of suicide drones that explode upon impact.
“These are very frightening weapons that are being deployed in an urban setting,” Williams said, calling it completely unacceptable.
In recent weeks, the tide of the over-a-year-long battle for Tripoli has turned in favor of the GNA, which has received substantial military support from Turkey in the form of the deployment of thousands of ethno-Turkish Syrians and drones to the frontlines of Tripoli. While the LNA has received backing from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, it has faced a troop deficit since the temporary ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia in January.
On April 18, forces affiliated with the GNA wrested seven cities west of the capital away from the LNA, including Sorman and Sabratha, which had granted Haftar control over the crucial Al-Wattia Air Force Base and provided local armed factions to his ranks. A military source with the GNA told Mada Masr at the time that the GNA launched about 16 air strikes on sites controlled by Haftar’s forces in western cities, most of which were focused on Sorman and Sabratha.
Haftar responded to the major setback by launching an intensified and indiscriminate bombing campaign on the capital, dropping an average of 100 shells per day and hitting dozens of civilian houses. On April 17 alone, the LNA dropped more than 132 shells on Tripoli, leaving at least five civilians dead and 16 others injured, according to a medical source that spoke to Mada Masr at the time.
On April 19, the GNA opened up several fronts in an attack on the city of Tarhouna, home to the Seventh Brigade and the site of Haftar’s main operations center since the loss of Gharyan in the summer of 2019. Forces affiliated with the GNA launched at least 17 airstrikes on the city, according to the GNA operations room. However, forces in Tarhouna repelled the attack, with a security official in Tarhouna telling Mada Masr that the GNA encountered violent resistance from local forces loyal to the Libyan National Army.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, the GNA conducted airstrikes on Tarhouna again, targeting the headquarters of the Seventh Brigade, a site the GNA claimed serves as the main headquarters for assembling and maintaining weapons in the city, and a fuel supply truck near Bani Walid, whose airport the LNA has used to ship in supplies to the Tripoli front.