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Tripoli Under Fire, Again

Smoke billows amid clashes between armed groups affiliated with Libya's Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) in the Libyan capital on August 15, 2023.

The Libyan capital, Tripoli, turned into a battlefield as street warfare ensued between two of the most powerful armed factions. The fighting followed the detainment of a military leader associated with one of the warring groups and raised concern over a potentially extended and intensified conflict.

The clashes between the 444 Brigade and the Special Deterrence Forces, known as RADA, erupted soon after it was announced that the latter had arrested Mahmoud Hamza, the leader of the 444 Brigade, without explaining whether this was on judicial orders or for other reasons.

Footage circulating on social media showed a military confrontation between the two militias with live ammunition, tanks and heavy arterially since Monday.

It remains unclear how many casualties there are, but according to Libya's health ministry, the clashes in the capital have left residents trapped in their homes and unable to escape the violence.

The ministry urged the warring sides to allow ambulance and emergency teams to enter the affected areas, primarily in the south of the city, and for blood to be sent to nearby hospitals.

Mediation Efforts

Efforts by locals and government officials to mediate a cease-fire faltered several times on Monday, according to local media. However, Najwa Wheba, the spokesperson of the Presidential Council of Libya, affirmed to VOA that Mohamed Menfi, the chairman of the presidential body, presented an initiative to defuse the situation, ultimately resulting in a successful mediation effort that led to the cessation of the confrontation.

"Menfi gave instructions from last night to the Deterrence Forces to hand over the 444 Brigade commander Mahmoud Hamza to the chief of staff of the army in Tripoli, and to stop any clashes or provocations by all parties immediately," Wheba said, adding that "the efforts to hand over Hamza were achieved only this afternoon after the participation of dignitaries and social leaders of Souq Al-Juma neighborhood."

Libya Presidential Spokesperson: Cease-Fire Achieved in Tripoli
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In addition, Almarsad, a local media platform, reported that elders and influencers from Souq Al-Juma "reached an agreement to hand over Mahmoud Hamza to a neutral party, which was already done, with an immediate cessation of battles."

Comrades Become Enemies

Both RADA and the 444 Brigade exchanged claims that they apprehended individuals from their respective factions, but despite the ensuing animosity, they share a relatively longstanding history and are interconnected through social bonds.

The 444 brigade was initially a component of RADA until they separated during the 2019 offensive against the capital by the Libyan National Army, LNA, forces in the east led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

Many individuals within the 444 brigade and RADA share a common background as they originate from Souq Al-Juma, which is now spearheading negotiations for halting military hostilities within the capital.

Hamza later established a new faction named 20/20, which subsequently evolved into what is now recognized as the 444 Brigade.

Some analysts suggest that these social ties might pave the way for constructive dialogue aimed at halting hostilities.

Legal Detainment, or ‘Kidnapping’

Hamza was taken into custody at Mitiga airport, the stronghold of RADA, while en route to Misrata, located 106 miles east of Tripoli, to attend a graduation ceremony for a military force along with prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. Yet, there have been no official statements from Tripoli authorities shedding light on the reasons behind his detention.

Salah Elbakkoush, a Libya-based political commentator and a former advisor to the General National Congress and the High Council of State, told VOA RADA claims "the detainment was based on a request from the military prosecutor. But the military prosecutor said nothing and Mohamed al-Menfi [Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya] who's officially in charge of that group, said nothing," adding that "I think it's a rivalry between the two camps."

Libyan Analyst on Tripoli Conflict: We Have No choice but Elections
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"It's possible that RADA acted on their own, as it's been done before. Militias are not a feature in the West only. What you have in the East is also a militia that's given the name of LNA [Libyan National Army], and these are militias that were given official status by the internationally recognized government and internationally recognized presidential council."

Elbakkoush pointed out another kidnapping that took place in the eastern part of the country against Al-Mabrouk Muhammad Al-Houti, a member of the Civil Democratic Party, by unknown persons.

Anas El Gomati, the director of Sadeq Institute, a think tank located in London specializing in Libyan affairs, told VOA that there is no legal nor legitimate or political basis for RADA to do this, but "there is politics behind the scenes here, and there's a lot of politicking that has been going on between armed groups and between rival political factions in order to create a unity government between Haftar and Dbeibeh. And those things are deeply destabilizing when it becomes almost like a piece of cake that is being distributed amongst different armed groups."

Libyan Analyst Unravels Dynamics Behind Tripoli's Unrest
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Longstanding divisions have sparked several incidents of violence in Tripoli in recent years, although most have been over in a matter of hours. But El Gomati believes that these clashes have the "capacity to move into the traditional logistics holds of a larger capital conflict."

"The conflict that took place on April 4, 2019, when Khalifa Haftar launched the power grab on the capital, took place in areas that are typically associated now with the 444 Brigade," El Gomati said.

International Condemnation

The escalation triggered a wide international reaction, urging concerned parties to de-escalate and halt hostilities.

In a statement Tuesday, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, UNSMIL, said it was following with concern “the security incidents and developments” that began Monday. It called for an immediate end to the ongoing armed clashes.

Both of Libya’s rival chambers also condemned the fighting in separate statements Tuesday. The House of Representatives, which is situated in the eastern city of Benghazi, said its rival Tripoli-based government was accountable for the violence.

The U.S., British and Italian embassies in Libya issued online statements expressing their concerns about the escalating violence around Tripoli.

The U.S. urges “immediate de-escalation in order to sustain recent Libyan gains toward stability and elections,” the American Embassy said.

"These kinds of conflicts are solved over the phone when political leaders get together and militia leaders get together, and ambassadors have to make phone calls and apply pressure," El Gomati said.

A Newly Elected Government is the Answer?

The international community and the United Nations have repeatedly said that nationwide elections are key to ending the country’s decade-long power vacuum. But for years, rival leaders have failed to agree to a set of election laws that would set the terms of that vote.

"This is the unfortunate reality of where Libya is, and it requires the international community to uphold its responsibility to maintain an objective that allows for these armed groups to transition into a neutral political force, not a political force that is there to work with one particular unity government, or a rival unity government, or an elite bargain," El Gomati said.

When asked about the potential for a newly elected government to bring about positive change, regulate sporadic clashes between militias, and integrate them into a single entity, Elbakkoush said," There are no guarantees in these things, but definitely having one legislative chamber electing a new single government will be a good step. Libya has had a legitimacy crisis over the past 10 years, and we cannot continue like this. Elections are no panacea, but we have no other choice."

Some information in this report came from AP.