Weekly Security Report by SNE 3 June 2014

The news this last week in Libya has again been dominated by the ongoing fighting in Benghazi between the New National Army led by Retired General Khalifa Hiftar and his ‘Operation Dignity’ against Ansar Al Sharia and the standoff in Tripoli between two Prime Ministers, the GNC and the threat of Hiftar moving against the capital in one form or other in the near future. Reports came out late on Tuesday night that Ahmed Matieg had taken over the PM office from Al Thinni in Tripoli under protection of Libya Shield and LROR forces. He may give a speech in an hour time and was confirmed in a speech by the President of the GNC Nouri Abu Sahmain. Support for General Hifter’s “Operation Dignity” is expanding, and the worsening political crisis has consolidated concerns that a political solution to the current instability will not be found. Thousands demonstrated for a second consecutive Friday on 30 May 2014, in a number of Libyan cities, including Tripoli, Benghazi and Tobruk. Turnout to the second round of protests was higher than the previous week, suggesting that popular support for Hifter’s campaign against militant groups is growing.  After a second round of air strikes was launched in Benghazi by General Hifter, primarily targeting Ansar al Sharia and the February 17 Brigade, on 28 May and 02 June, clashes escalated and have continued to intensify. Travel to Benghazi is not advised at this moment in time. A warplane ostensibly under the command of General Hifter reportedly targeted an Ansar al Sharia base located in the former crown prince’s building near to the southern district of Tabalino on 01 June 2014, but missed its target and caused substantial damage to a nearby university building. Two people were also wounded during the attack. Subsequently, a spokesperson for Hifter’s forces claimed that an Air Force jet successfully struck a February 17 Brigade stronghold in the Hawari district, and positions held by Ansar al Sharia in the Sidi Faraj area.    In response, local sources reported that heavy clashes broke out overnight on 01 – 02 June 2014, after Ansar al Sharia militants attacked an army camp just east of the city, sparking fighting in numerous parts. Clashes intensified, as Hifter’s forces deployed helicopters to back up their ground forces. Clashes have been reported in the southern Tabalino area towards Garyounes, Hawari and Guwarsha, although fighting appears to be spreading. Other locations which have served as flashpoints for fighting between Hifter’s forces and Islamist militias over the past few weeks include: Ganfouda, Sidi Younes, Laithi, Souq Hadiqa and the residential areas surrounding Benghazi (Benina) International Airport, which doubles as a military airbase, from which Hifter’s forces have ostensibly been launching attacks. Nine deaths have been confirmed from the recent outbreak of fighting, although the true number may be far higher. Local sources have also claimed that in addition to the army units (backed up by Benghazi’s Saiqa Special Force), which have been attacking Islamist groups, civilian vigilante groups have formed and confronted Ansar al Sharia in the Sidi Faraj area. A member of one such group claimed early on 02 June 2014, that several Ansar al Sharia militants had been detained by vigilantes, and several vehicles seized. The reports of such vigilante groups seem reasonable in the context of massive protests held on 30 May 2014; more than 800 supporters of “Operation Dignity” gathered outside the Tibesty Hotel in downtown Tripoli to denounce the Islamist extremist groups which have wreaked havoc on the city over the past two years. Protesters also demonstrated their opposition to the General National Congress (GNC), which they claimed is illegitimate and should be disbanded.

The Political situation currently remains unclear who is technically in charge in Libya. Growing political polarisation has resulted in chaos, as two individuals are currently insisting that they are the legitimate prime minister. Abdullah al Thinni, the incumbent (acting) prime minister, has continued to refuse to hand over power to his disputed successor, Ahmed Miitig. Following a session on 25 May 2014, in which the GNC reportedly voted in favour of confirming Miitig’s newly formed government, al Thinni claimed that the Minister of Justice had ruled Miitig’s election illegal, and that he would not transfer power until the matter is resolved. Miitig was first selected by the GNC on 04 May 2014, but the vote has faced legal challenges, and a number of GNC representatives and other observers have continued to refuse to recognise him as prime minister. Al Thinni has claimed that the matter is now being passed to the Supreme Court to decide on, and that he will continue to oversee his caretaker government until the matter is resolved. The GNC, including its leadership, remains bitterly divided. As this situation continues, the task of the High National Elections Commission (HNEC) to organise general elections for 25 June 2014, is made all the more difficult. However, preparations for the elections are ongoing.

Tensions have been further heightened as GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain and his deputy Ezzedine Awami have exchanged threats; Abu Sahmain claimed on 30 May 2014, that al Thinni’s refusal to hand over power was illegal, and stated that al Thinni could face prison time for “abusing his power”. In response, Awami stated that the GNC should be suspended.  As the opposing political factions which can broadly be characterised as Islamists backing the Miitig Government, and “anti-Islamists” (often referred to as liberals) supporting al Thinni are backed by various militia groupings and former rebel brigades, the political standoff has raised concerns that clashes will be reignited. While Tripoli remained relatively calm between 31 May and the 03 June, with only minor scuffles breaking out during protests, the escalation of fighting in Benghazi could once again spill over into the capital.

Due to the intense violence in Benghazi, and the ongoing political stalemate, Tripoli remains extremely tense. While clashes which broke out following General Hifter’s attack on the GNC building on 18 May 2014, have receded, spill-over from Benghazi’s violence is anticipated, particularly as various political factions that are currently embroiled in fierce dispute are backed up by armed groups which have repeatedly sought to use violence to enforce their preferred outcomes to political conflict. As such, skirmishes are expected to continue between rival militias, and politically-motivated violence (such as the attacks against Miitig’s home and al Thinni’s office which occurred on 28 May 2014) may also feature.  The worst violence thus far has been reported from the south-western districts of Hay Andalus, Hay al Akhwakh and Abu Salim, particularly along Airport Road; the eastern districts of Suq al Juma’a towards Mitiga Airbase, and further east to Tajoura; and the south-eastern districts of Ain Zara and Salahedin. Tensions remain extremely high across Tripoli, as the clashes were followed by a build-up of militia presence from both sides of the dispute across the capital, and frequent skirmishes have been reported since the initial attack.    Major rival protests were held, both in support of “Operation Dignity”’s aim to rid Libya of terrorists, as well as against Hifter’s actions, on 30 May 2014 in Tripoli. Hundreds gathered to support Hifter’s actions, and to call for the removal of armed militia groups from the capital in favour of a unified police force and military, in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square. Scuffles later broke out, when protesters demonstrating against. Hifter’s operation also gathered in Martyrs’ Square. However, the skirmishes were relatively minor, as the anti-Hifter protesters, many of which were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood moved to Algeria Square. The turnout at the pro-Hifter demonstration was higher than it had been at a similar protest the previous Friday, and suggests that popular support for Operation Dignity may be increasing.   Following the GNC’s announcement that the Cabinet of controversially-elected Ahmed Miitig had been confirmed, Ibrahim Jadhran, the leader of an eastern bloc of federalist rebels responsible for shutting down major oil export terminals over the past ten months, stated that negotiations with the government would be halted, and that the two ports which have recently restarted production will be shut down again. A spokesperson for the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) stated that around US$18 billion has been lost so far due to the ongoing blockades and protests that have decimated oil production in the country since the summer of 2013. Current oil output stands at around 155,000 barrels per day.

SNE assesses that travel to Libya should be put on hold at present unless for business essential reasons only and advises that stringent security and travel management plans are in place. An itinerary specific pre-travel risk assessment including mitigation measures are recommended. In-country personnel should be confident in their evacuation procedures and crisis management plans and in light of the current situation these should be checked and updated where necessary.

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