Amnesty International is calling for all sides to immediately stop the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas in Tripoli and Benghazi where clashes in recent weeks have evolved into two separate armed conflicts. Such indiscriminate attacks that result in death or injury to civilians amount to war crimes.
Intense fighting between rival armed groups and militias in both cities has killed 214 people and injured 981, according to the Ministry of Health, as well as causing damage to civilian property. Medical workers reported that the dead and injured included civilians, in particular women and children.
“The warring parties in Tripoli and Benghazi have displayed a wanton disregard for the safety of ordinary civilians who have found themselves mercilessly pinned down by indiscriminate shelling with imprecise weapons that should never be used in populated areas,” said Philip Luther, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
“All sides in both these conflicts have an absolute obligation under international law not to target attacks against civilians.”
Parties to the conflict also have an obligation to refrain from attacks that disproportionately harm civilians or fail to distinguish between civilians and combatants.
In one of the most tragic incidents, five members of the same family were killed when a GRAD rocket struck their home in Sawani, on the outskirts of Tripoli on 31 July. Among the dead was Na’ima Bahloul al-Dawa, who was eight months pregnant and received shrapnel wounds to the stomach causing her to miscarry. A girl around 10 years old was also killed after sustaining head injuries. Three other members of the same family including a 14-year-old boy and a woman in her sixties were injured in the same incident.
In a number of other cases civilians have been killed at home when their buildings were shelled. These include a 60-year-old man from Qasr Ben Ghashir in Tripoli on 20 July. A day earlier Anas Kamal al-Harrabi, a young boy, was also killed. Several civilian deaths have also been reported in Benghazi.
In both Tripoli and Benghazi the indiscriminate shelling of urban areas using mortars, artillery, GRAD rockets and anti-aircraft weapons has been extensive. Firing such imprecise weapons in urban areas resulting in death or injury to civilians amounts to a war crime. All parties to the conflict must cease indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks and the authorities must launch effective and independent investigations into all credible allegations of war crimes perpetrated during these two conflicts.
“Armed groups involved in the fighting have demonstrated a recklessness towards civilians and their property in recent weeks, launching indiscriminate attacks while paying little attention to the devastating consequences of such irresponsible actions,” said Philip Luther.
In and around Benghazi, a coalition of Islamist militias and armed groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, which was recently re-named the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, has been engaged in a conflict against armed forces allied with retired General Khalifa Haftar since mid-May.
In Tripoli, rival militias from Zintan and Misratah and their respective allies, have been fighting for control of Tripoli International Airport since 13 July.
Indiscriminate shelling in urban areas surrounding the capital’s airport has prompted thousands of residents to flee. Many of them, including foreign diplomats and aid workers, fled across the border to Tunisia. According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, some 30,000 people crossed the border into Tunisia over the last week, many of them Egyptian workers. Airports in both Tripoli and Benghazi have been shut due to the spiralling violence.
Damage to civilian buildings and infrastructure
As well as the rising civilian death toll, persistent shelling has caused significant damage to civilian buildings and infrastructure in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Scores of civilian homes, as well as factories, mosques and shops, have been damaged or destroyed in the residential areas of Qasr Ben Ghashir, Al-Akwakh, Kremiya and along the main airport road in Tripoli. Farms have been shelled and livestock killed in Qasr Ben Ghashir, according to local authorities. Dozens of houses in the area have been reportedly looted or vandalized by criminal gangs. The looting of private property during armed conflict is prohibited under international law.
The attack on the Zintan militias, in charge of protecting Tripoli International Airport since the fall of Colonel al-Gaddafi, has damaged several buildings and 20 aircraft, according to state officials. The airport has been repeatedly attacked, including with GRAD rockets, since 13 July. While most civilians living in the vicinity of the airport left their homes in the first week of the fighting, others have been unable to leave as a result of shelling or because of a general fuel shortage in the city.
Residents in Tripoli reported a shortage of food, baby milk and medicine for the treatment of chronic diseases as a result of the closure of roads in the southern areas of the city.
Damage to the power station in southern Benghazi and major transmission lines in Tripoli caused by shelling has also caused power cuts in both cities.
At least three medial facilities were damaged in the fighting in Tripoli and two medical warehouses destroyed. A medical clinic and medical warehouse in Benghazi were also partially destroyed as a result of shelling.
Al Afya clinic, the largest private hospital in Tripoli, just 3km away from Tripoli International Airport, was damaged by a GRAD rocket and gunfire after an armed group established a base around 200 metres away from which it was launching attacks on the airport. Staff said that at the time of the shelling there were hundreds of people including medical works, patients and visitors at the hospital. The clinic remained open for the treatment of wounded fighters and civilians in the area but was forced to shut down completely on 17 July after it was hit by mortar fire.