Besieged Libyans hit by fresh artillery onslaught – as coronavirus arrives

Violence surges as investigation finds Turkish ships delivered tons of heavy weaponry just days after Erdogan pledge

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Members of the Al Samood militia, led by UN sanctioned milita leader Salah Badi, were pictured with Turkish BMC Kirpi IIs in 2019
Members of the Al Samood militia, led by UN sanctioned milita leader Salah Badi, were pictured with Turkish BMC Kirpi IIs in 2019 Credit: BBC Africa Eye

Turkey delivered heavy weapons to Libya days after pledging to respect a UN arms embargo, a newly published investigation has found. 

Armoured personnel carriers, anti-aircraft cannons and self-propelled artillery were supplied to Libya's UN-recognised Government of National Accord in late January amid frantic international efforts to force a ceasefire, according to the investigation by BBC Africa Eye.  

The findings cast fresh light on the involvement of foreign powers in the country's civil war amid fears that the global coronavirus pandemic could further wreak havoc in the country. 

The GNA on Wednesday accused Gen Haftar, whose Libyan National Army has been besieging Tripoli for a year, of exploiting the Covid-19 epidemic after intense fighting erupted within hours of the country confirming its first case of the disease. 

Residents of Tripoli reported windows shaking as rockets and shells slammed into residential areas usually untouched by the year-long battle on the city’s southern outskirts in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Tripoli authorities said on Wednesday afternoon that 12 civilians had been killed in the preceding 72 hours. 

“It’s been quite bad over the last few days but yesterday night was extremely bad,” said a local resident who asked not to be named. “Heavy random shelling hitting densely populated areas across Tripoli.” 

The GNA said on Wednesday morning that it had launched a large-scale offensive in retaliation aimed at pushing Gen Haftar's forces out of the al-Watiya airbase, 80 miles south west of the capital. Intense fighting was also reporting on the southern outskirts of the city.  

"With Covid-19 cases in Libya anticipated to increase over the coming days, resources must now be allocated between defending the capital against foreign attack and containing Covid-19. We should not be asked to choose between defending democracy or stopping the pandemic," said Mohamed Geblawi, a spokesman for the Libyan foreign ministry. 

Fighters of a military battalion loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Hafta patrol the streets in the eastern city of Benghazi during a state of emergency to combat the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak Credit: ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP

Tripoli's National Centre for Disease control confirmed the country's first coronavirus case, a 73-year-old man who crossed into Libya from neighboring Tunisia on March 5, late on Tuesday. 

Both Tripoli and a rival government in Bengahzi have introduced curfews designed to slow the spread of the disease, but a pledge last week by both sides to honour ceasefire to address the pandemic has not resulted in reduced violence.

The United Nations has expressed frustration at continued violation of arms embargoes by a range of regional powers backing rival sides in the war in Libya. 

Gen Haftar has received extensive military and financial backing from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Russia, including mercenaries, drones, and fast jets carrying out airstrikes on his behalf.

The GNA, which currently controls only part of the country's Western coast, has received backing from Turkey and Qatar.  

The leaders of Egypt, Russia, Turkey, and the UAE signed up to a declaration promising to respect a UN arms embargo at a summit in Berlin on January 19, but is widely believed to have been flouted.

In late January GNA fighters downed a Chinese-made, UAE-supplied drone being used by Gen Haftar's forces. Flight tracking websites have shown a series of heavy cargo flights between the United Arab Emirates and Benghazi in the same period.

The open-source investigation by BBC Africa Eye found that the Bana, a Lebanese-flagged freighter, left the Turkish port of of Mersin with a cargo including  ACV-15 infantry fighting vehicles and GDF anti-aircraft cannon on January 24. 

Its declared destination was Tunisia, but it turned off its transponder as it approached Libya and arrived in Tripoli escorted by two Turkish warships shortly afterwards, the report said. 

The Bana later docked in Genoa, where a crew member related details of the arms delivery to Italian police.

Photographs of the interior of the Bana taken by Italian police matched details in a previously unconfirmed video  purporting to show weaponry in the hold of the freighter posted on Twitter in January.

BBC Africa Eye found these boats crossing the Mediterannean, just off the coast of Tripoli. The one in the middle is the Bana, which turned its transponder off to stop being tracked as it carried weapons into Libya. Credit: BBC Africa Eye

It also matched fresh photographs of weaponry in the hold obtained by investigators. 

The investigation identified another vessel that arrived with armoured personnel carriers in early 2019 and another, the Ana, which arrived after the Bana. Both turned off their transponders as they approached Libyan waters.  

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, announced he would send military assistance to Libya in response to a request from the GNA in late December, and the Turkish parliament approved the deployment of troops there in a vote on January 2. 

Last month he admitted that Turkish-backed Syrian fighters had also been deployed alongside Turkish army training teams. 

One reason for the UN embargo is the difficulty of controlling whose hands weapons fall into.  

Images have emerged of Turkish armoured vehicles delivered in 2019 in the hands of a gunmen loyal to Badi Salah, a militia leader from Misrata who has been sanctioned by the UN for an attack on Tripoli in 2018 but who is now fighting for the GNA against Gen Haftar.  

Ümit Yalçın, the Turkish ambassador to the UK, said: "The support that we are providing to the legitimate government aims to balance the situation on the ground and pave the way for a sustainable ceasefire.

"This is in line with the UNSC Resolution 2259 (2015) that calls all members to extend support to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Our support mainly consists of providing trainers and advisers. "

The interior ministry of the GNA said its military cooperation with Turkey was "transparent" and legitimate under international law. 

 "Our government has a right to enter military agreements, and are currently receiving support through one such agreement from Turkey, a Nato member," it said. 

"Haftar and his backers, notably the UAE, did not cease their attacks for a single day before, during or after the Berlin peace talks. While we sought and still desire peace, we have a responsibility to do all that is required to protect and defend the civilians of Libya while they remain under attack. "

A GNA commander told the Telegraph in January that Turkish-manned air defence systems have made a crucial contribution to the defence of Tripoli and Misrata, the principle cities controlled by the government.