Gunfire and blasts echoed through Libya’s capital on Friday as eastern forces fought troops of the internationally recognised government in southern Tripoli suburbs, forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar advanced on the coastal city a week ago in the latest conflict of a cycle of anarchy since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
But armed groups loyal to Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj have so far kept them at bay, with fierce fighting round a disused former airport about 11 km (7 miles) from the centre.
A week of battles has killed 75 people – mainly fighters but also 17 civilians – and wounded another 323, according to latest U.N. tallies. Some 9,500 people have also been forced out of their homes.
As the sound of fighting echoed round their city, residents sought to maintain some normality on Friday.
Some families were having breakfast in cafes next to the fish market where people were stocking up for the weekend.
“We have got used to wars. I fear only in God,” said Yamim Ahmed, who works in a fast food restaurant.
As well as the humanitarian cost, the conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, increase migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, scupper a U.N. peace plan, and allow Islamist militants to exploit the chaos.
Haftar, a former general in Gaddafi’s army who later joined the revolt against him, moved his troops out of their eastern stronghold to take the oil-rich, desert south earlier this year, before sweeping up to Tripoli at the start of April.
But Serraj’s government has managed to halt the advance, helped by armed groups with machine-guns on pickups and steel containers across the road into Tripoli.
The United Nations, which had hoped to organise a national conference this month bringing the rival eastern and western administrations together to organise an election, has called for a ceasefire. The United States, G7 bloc and European Union have also urged the LNA to halt its offensive.
“We had hoped there would be a national conference, not fighting,” said Sulaiman, a businessman enjoying coffee with friends. “Unfortunately, after 40 years of dictatorship we don’t have the right political way to express ourselves, we don’t want military rule or militia rule.”
The U.N. health agency said it fears outbreaks of tuberculosis, measles and diarrhoea due to poor sanitation, especially among those displaced.
“We are keeping a very strong eye on outbreaks – because of displacement into places, and the water sanitation system is compromised. So there is a huge likelihood of outbreaks,” World Health Organisation (WHO) representative Dr Syed Jaffar Hussain told a Geneva news briefing from Tripoli.
Five ambulances have been hit trying to extract wounded people from the conflict zone, he added.
The WHO said it had only two weeks of medical supplies available for Tripoli’s hospitals.
Haftar casts himself as a bulwark against Islamist militancy who wants to restore order to Libya.
He has so far resisted U.N. pressure to accept a power-sharing settlement, using his leverage as an ally of the West in attempts to stem jihadists in North Africa.
Thousands of migrants, mainly Syrians and other Africans, are trapped in squalid detention centres in Tripoli as the fighting approaches.
Libya is a major transit point for migrants pouring into Europe in recent years, mostly trafficked by smuggling gangs.
“Refugees and migrants trapped in detention centres in #Libya are completely dependent on authorities and the humanitarian actors for basic services,” tweeted aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
“There are reports that some in detention centres have not eaten in days … #Libya is not a place of safety. The #EU cannot continue to turn its back on vulnerable individuals fleeing the country.”