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Western nations view the unity government as the best hope for ending Libya’s chaos and uniting all factions against an increasingly powerful Islamic State affiliate, which has seized the central city of Sirte. But factions within two other rival Libyan governments, one of which is based in Tripoli, are opposed to the U.N.-backed body.

Fayez Serraj sailed in from neighboring Tunisia aboard a Libyan vessel, according to the unity government’s website, which denied reports that the officials had been brought in aboard an Italian ship. His arrival sparked fears of renewed clashes in Tripoli, which is controlled by several militias with different loyalties.

Hours after he landed, shops and restaurants closed, and cars lined up outside gas stations. Opposing militias set up checkpoints in downtown Tripoli, stopping cars and searching drivers.

Late on Wednesday, witnesses said protesters attacked offices of al-Nabaa TV network and took it off the air. The network has been giving air time to Islamists supportive of the Tripoli government.

Serraj arrived with six deputies who are members of the Presidential Council, which was established based on a U.N.-mediated deal signed by breakaway groups from the two governments last year. The council formed the new unity government headed by Serraj.

The officials were prevented from flying into Tripoli by a rival Islamist-backed government based in the capital. A third government is based in the east of the vast oil-rich country. Libya has been dominated by an array of militias since the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

“It is time for all of us as Libyans to work together for the sake of Libya,” Serraj said upon his arrival, according to the government’s Facebook page. He urged rivals to “turn the page of the past,” saying “revenge, alienation, antipathy, and hatred don’t build a state.” In a nod to Islamist factions, Serraj stressed that all laws will be compliant with Shariah.

He also vowed to unify state institutions and implement “rapid measures” to lessen the suffering of civilians. Pictures on the website showed him shaking hands with naval officers, who presented him with a golden plate.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the council’s arrival.

“Now is not the time for obstructionists to hold back progress, but rather for all Libyans throughout the country to embrace this historic opportunity for a peaceful and more prosperous Libya,” he said in a statement.

The U.N. envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, praised Serraj’s “exceptional personal courage” and urged officials to facilitate an “immediate orderly and peaceful handover of power.” He tweeted: “All security actors in #Libya have responsibility to ensure safety and security of Presidency Council & #GNA.”

But Ali Abu Zakouk, the foreign minister of the Islamist-backed government, said Serraj’s presence is “unacceptable.” Last week, the Tripoli government declared a state of emergency and ordered its forces to “increase security patrols and checkpoints.” Days later, the government closed Tripoli’s air space.

On Tuesday, Khalifa Ghweil, the prime minister, said the U.N. was “deepening the schism” and that its political deal had produced “a deformed newborn.” He added in a televised speech that the government had to close the airspace after members of the U.N.-backed government tried to fly in on a passenger plane from Tunisia, accusing them of using the other passengers as “human shields.”

Tripoli’s airport was closed again on Wednesday, with all flights diverted to Misrata, an airport official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

After Serraj’s arrival, Ghweil reiterated his opposition to the U.N. government, which he described as “infiltrators.” He questioned the new government’s commitment to Islamic law and urged militias to oppose it.

“Either they hand themselves in or leave,” he said.

Serraj faces a daunting array of challenges, and could struggle to impose his will on the Central Bank, the state-run oil company and other institutions.

More immediately, he is at risk of being attacked or besieged in his base by rival militias. He is being guarded by battle-hardened militias from the city of Misrata, which saw fierce fighting during the uprising five years ago. But Tripoli is also home to several powerful Islamic militant groups, which could move against him, setting off yet another round of fighting.

Tripoli’s various militias appeared to be weighing their next moves, with many leaning toward support for Serraj.

The spokesman of the Special Deterrent Force, a powerful unit that answers to Tripoli’s Interior Ministry, said it would support Serraj. “We want one man to unite the country. We hope that this man is Serraj,” Ahmed ben Salem said.

But he said around 20 percent of the militias are opposed to the new government. Among them is Salah Badi, part of the Libya Dawn coalition that backed Tripoli’s parliament against forces allied with the internationally backed government in 2014. Fighting that year saw the Tripoli government secure the capital while the internationally backed government relocated to the country’s far east.

The U.S. and its European allies hope the U.N.-backed government can unify the country and serve as an ally against Islamic State. U.S. special forces have been on the ground, working with Libyan officials, and U.S. warplanes have carried out airstrikes. Libyan officials say small teams of French, British and Italian commandos are also on the ground helping militiamen battling Islamic State in the eastern city of Benghazi, though those three countries have not confirmed their presence.

The establishment of a unity government could pave the way for lifting an arms embargo on Libya, allowing Western countries to provide greater support to local forces.

Gunmen stormed the headquarters of a Libyan television station late Wednesday, as the authorities in control of Tripoli demanded the departure of the newly arrived prime minister-designate in a blow to hopes for a peaceful power handover.

Armed men burst into the headquarters of satellite TV station Al-Nabaa in central Tripoli, cut its transmissions and forced out its staff, according to two journalists from the channel.

The channel is close to the unrecognized authorities in control of Tripoli. One Al-Nabaa journalist said the gunmen appeared to be supporters of the U.N.-backed unity government, whose head, Sarraj, arrived in the capital Wednesday to the fury of the rival authorities.

“A group of armed men, some of them in fatigues and some in civilian clothing, stormed our offices and gathered the employees in one room,” an Al-Nabaa staff member told AFP. A colleague said broadcasting had been suspended, adding that no one had been hurt.

Sarraj, a businessman named prime minister-designate under a U.N.-brokered power-sharing deal in December, had arrived by sea earlier Wednesday with a naval escort along with several members of his Cabinet.

But in a sign of the formidable challenge facing his government, Tripoli’s unrecognized authorities demanded that he leave the capital or “hand himself in.”

“Those who entered illegally and secretly must surrender or turn back,” the head of the Tripoli authorities Khalifa Ghweil said in a televised address. “We won’t leave Tripoli as long as we are not sure of the fate of our homeland.”

Tripoli’s government had declared a state of emergency ahead of Sarraj’s anticipated arrival, and several main highways were blocked late Wednesday by armed groups — some uniformed and others in civilian clothes — who arrived aboard military vehicles, an AFP reporter said.

Afriqiyah Airlines and Libyan Airlines announced on their Facebook pages that they had canceled flights to Tripoli over “security concerns.”

Residents hurried home as cracks of gunfire could be heard around the capital.

Libya has had two rival administrations since mid-2014 when a militia alliance overran the capital, setting up its own authority and forcing the internationally recognized parliament to flee to the country’s remote east.

International leaders, increasingly alarmed by the rise of jihadis and people-smugglers in the impoverished North African state, have urged Libya’s political rivals to support the unity government.

But so far the two administrations have refused to cede power.

Sarraj said he would make “reconciliation and the settlement of security and economic crises” his priority.

The United States led a chorus of Western welcome for Sarraj’s arrival.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said Sarraj’s arrival was “a unique opportunity for Libyans of all factions to reunite.”

She added that the 28-nation bloc stood ready to support Libya and had already prepared an aid package worth €100 million (0 million).

Sarraj and his Cabinet had previously been blocked from entering Tripoli by the authorities there, who even closed the airspace several times to prevent them flying in.

Tripoli residents reacted on social media to Farraj’s arrival with a mixture of hope and sarcasm.

Twitter user @alladdinno said Sarraj’s appearance “felt like when the things you ordered online finally arrive.”

The unity government announced this month that it would start work on the back of a petition signed by a narrow majority of Libya’s elected lawmakers.

The United States and its European allies have threatened sanctions against those who undermine the political process.

Libya has descended into chaos since 2011, raising fears the Islamic State group is establishing a new stronghold just across the Mediterranean.

Islamic State seized control of of Sirte and launched a wave of attacks, both against rival Libyan forces and across the border in Tunisia.

Western countries are considering military action against the jihadis in Libya but want a unity government to request help first.

Libya has long been a stepping stone for migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, and in recent years traffickers have exploited the country’s instability.

Libyan coast guardsmen rescued 152 Europe-bound migrants from two vessels in trouble early on Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the Tripoli navy.

Around 330,000 migrants have landed in Italy from Libya since the start of 2014.


(Tripoli) - Authorities in and around Misrata are preventing thousands of people from returning to the villages of Tomina and Kararim and have failed to stop local militias from looting and burning homes there, Human Rights Watch said today.

The abuse mirrors the treatment of roughly 30,000 displaced people from the nearby town of Tawergha, who have also been blocked from returning home for at least five months, Human Rights Watch said.

Officials in Misrata have sought to justify the violations to Human Rights Watch, contending that people from Tomina, Kararim, and Tawergha fought with Gaddafi forces and committed atrocities against Misratans during the 2011 conflict.

“Tomina and Kararim are ghost towns because Misrata officials are blocking thousands of people who fled from returning home,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who recently visited the villages and met with displaced residents. “Armed groups from Misrata are openly looting and destroying their homes, as they have been doing for months in Tawergha.”

The Misrata authorities should issue immediate orders to the militias they control to stop the looting and home destructions, and should deploy a protective security forces in the affected area to facilitate the return of displaced people, Human Rights Watch said.

The transitional Libyan government and its international supporters should press the Misrata authorities and militias to cease their abusive conduct against displaced people, Human Rights Watch said. Commanders and members of the militias responsible for crimes, including preventing people from returning home, should be investigated and prosecuted.

The National Transitional Council and transitional government have been unable to assert control over the hundreds of militias operating in Libya, Human Rights Watch said. But in Misrata local military authorities, including the military council, appear to have influence over many of the city’s 250 militias. The Misrata Military Council apparently operates checkpoints, including one 80 kilometers south of the city.

“The Misrata authorities can definitely do a lot more to allow returns now and to protect civilian property,” Bouckaert said. “They are required to take action to stop these crimes under international law.”

Ramadan Zarmuh, head of the Misrata Military Council, told Human Rights Watch in early February that the problems in Kararim and Tomina are between the residents of the towns, or “between neighbors.” He said that solving the problems will require the former residents of the two villages to surrender their “criminals” so they can be brought to justice.

The National Transitional Council chairman, Mustafa Abdeljalil, made a similar point  in February, telling media that families could return to the areas around Misrata “as soon as those who are wanted face justice.”

Allowing communities to return to their homes should not be linked to the prosecution of individuals who may be implicated in wrongdoing, Human Rights Watch said. Action is needed now to ensure that displaced people can return before their homes are occupied or destroyed and their displacement becomes permanent. Preventing the return of an entire community amounts to unlawful and arbitrary collective punishment, Human Rights Watch said.

In Kararim, 25 kilometers south of Misrata, Human Rights Watch found a few dozen families who had remained during the conflict or returned afterward, apparently because they had supported anti-Gaddafi forces.  A significant militia presence was in the town, consisting of Kararim residents who had fought with the anti-Gaddafi militias. In Tomina, about 10 kilometers south of Misrata, Human Rights Watch saw no inhabited homes, although officials there said that 20 percent of the former population had returned. Tawergha remained completely abandoned.

Displaced residents of Tomina and Kararim told Human Rights Watch that Gaddafi forces had ordered the civilian residents of both villages to evacuate their homes on May 12, 2011. The residents of Tawergha fled with retreating Gaddafi forces in mid-August.

Some residents of Tomina and Kararim who tried to return to their homes in recent months told Human Rights Watch that Misrata militia members had stopped them at the checkpoint 80 kilometers south of Misrata. Gunmen checked the villagers against lists of those wanted for collaboration with Gaddafi forces or direct involvement in crimes committed during the war, they said. The villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were not on the list, but they were still prevented from going home. Instead, militia members took them to a fenced-in complex just outside Tawergha called the Emirates apartments, where the displaced villagers have remained.

Human Rights Watch visited the apartment complex in late January 2012 and saw between 60 and 100 families there guarded by militia members from various cities. A militia commander there said his men protect the residents and help them get food and other assistance. His men prevent residents from leaving without an escort to protect them from attacks, He said.

On more than a dozen visits to Tawergha by Human Rights Watch between September and January, Human Rights Watch researchers saw Misrata militia members burning and destroying homes. In late January, Human Rights Watch found almost no properties in Tawergha that were undamaged by fire.

“Deportation” or the “forcible transfer of population” can be a crime against humanity by virtue of Article 7(d) of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. It is defined as the “forced displacement of the persons concerned by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law.” Preventing a displaced population from returning could be a “coercive act” leading to forced displacement. This is a crime against humanity if committed on a widespread or in a systematic manner, as part of a deliberate policy by an organized group such as the military councils.

Under the law of armed conflict, the evacuation of a population during an armed conflict is permitted under limited circumstances, but the evacuated people must be permitted to return once the conflict has ceased. Ordering the displacement of a civilian population,the wanton destruction of civilian property, and the collective punishment of civilian populations can amount to war crimes.

Libya’s transitional government, as well as the Misrata authorities and local military commanders, are under an international obligation to prevent and investigate such crimes, and to facilitate the post-conflict return of civilian populations to their homes, Human Rights Watch said. Military and civilian officials with command responsibility, who fail to stop these ongoing crimes, could find themselves investigated and prosecuted domestically or by the International Criminal Court.

“The new Libya is not a safe place if you are from Tawergha, Tomina, or Kararim,” Bouckaert said. “Some Misrata militias took up arms to get rid of oppression, and they are now bringing it back by oppressing others.”

Evidence from Tomina and Kararim

Human Rights Watch interviewed six residents of Tomina and Kararim separately, and dozens more in four groups. They all said that Gaddafi forces were present in their villages during the siege of Misrata in April and May 2011. They said that Gaddafi forces ordered the mass evacuation of both villages on May 12, giving residents a few hours to leave their homes.

Most Tomina and Kararim residents fled with just a few of their possessions, residents said, leaving their livestock behind. Because of fierce fighting at the front line between their towns and rebel-held Misrata, and the control exerted over their area by Gaddafi forces, the residents said they had no choice but to flee southward into Gaddafi-held areas, such as al-Hisha, Wadi Zam-Zam, and Sirte.

Most of the village residents remain displaced in these areas today, living in extremely difficult conditions, because Misrata officials refuse to allow them to return home.

“Mustafa” (not his real name), a 40-year-old farmer from Tomina who now lives in a tiny rented apartment in Sirte, explained to Human Rights Watch that 35 people from six families had lived together on a 10-acre farm in Tomina. He said that when Gaddafi forces arrived at the beginning of the siege of Misrata in April, they let the families stay, but said the families would be held responsible for any shooting from the area of the farm. Because of ongoing fighting, the families decided to flee on April 14. “We couldn’t move toward [rebel-held] Misrata because of the heavy fighting on the front lines,” Mustafa said. “The only direction to leave was [south], so we all left and came to Sirte.”

Mustafa said his family left behind some 250 sheep, representing virtually their entire wealth. After the war, the family members returned home, Mustafa said, but a Misrata militia forced them to the Emirates Apartment building outside Tawergha and told them they needed written permission from all their neighbors before they could go home. Three neighbors gave their permission, but a fourth, whose son had fought with the rebels and was killed, refused to sign.

“Ahmed” (not his real name), 45, a farmer with three children, told Human Rights Watch that his family fled their five-hectare farm in Tomina, owned by his family since 1966, on May 13, fleeing toward Sirte. “We didn’t flee in this direction because we were loyalist; it was impossible to cross the front line, so we had to flee [south],” he said. In late January, Ahmed was living in the Emirates Apartment building. The Military Council in Kararim refused to allow him and his neighbors to return home, he said:

Ahmed said he tried once to return home from Sirte but Misrata officials stopped him at the 80-kilometer checkpoint, and took him to the Emirates Apartment compound, which he and others were rarely allowed to leave:

“Ibrahim” (not his real name), a 60-year old man from Kararim with 12 children, said he had rented a farm from the government since 1948. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, his family was granted title to the land, he said. He told Human Rights Watch what happened in the first half of 2011:


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