Libya currently stands at a critical moment as the country faces the dual risks of both the intensifying conflict and the possible spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 24 March the Tripoli authorities reported the first known case of coronavirus which indicated that more cases are likely present in the country. Libya’s two rival governments continued to implement measures to avoid an outbreak and equip the health authorities to combat the virus despite the continued hostilities and little coordination between them.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Libya, Yacoub el-Hillo, said that the ‘timing could not be worse’ for the coronavirus threat to loom over Libya. Once again, the international community urged a cessation of hostilities to give the health authorities unhindered access and boost protective measures. The consequences would be dire if the pandemic spreads with Libya ranking 168th of 195 nations in preparedness for a health crisis according to the Global Health Security Index.
If there was a ‘humanitarian pause’ of this kind — as advocated by international actors and rhetorically supported by the warring sides — it was hardly noticed by civilians as fighting escalated last week between the forces of the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the rival Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF).
The LAAF bombardment of Tripoli targets — in which at least seven civilians were killed by mortar attacks — has intensified. Residents said that the shelling was the worst in weeks with shaking windows in the city centre which is many kilometres from the front line in the southern suburbs.
On 25 March the pro-GNA forces responded to the LAAF shelling by launching an assault on several fronts including a failed attempt to capture the strategically important al-Watiya airbase, to the west of Tripoli, which is the closest LAAF such facility to the capital. The GNA also made territorial advances into Tarhouna with the aerial support of Turkish drones.
The new clashes threaten to dangerously escalate the conflict just as the country braces itself for the spread of COVID-19 with which the global powers are totally preoccupied. Rather than pursuing cooperation and coordination to confront the threat, both sides appear to be taking advantage of the global distraction to make gains on the battlefield and score propaganda points.
On 26 March, after months of failed negotiations, European Union (EU) member states agreed to launch the Operation Irini naval mission in the Mediterranean to enforce the UN-mandated arms embargo on Libya.
The National Oil Company (NOC) reported on 23 March that the economic fallout from the extended blockade of its eastern oil facilities has resulted in losses exceeding US$3.5 billion and reducing production to 95,837 b/d.