Bloodbath in Libya as Warlord Clashes Kill 45, Injure over 100

Smoke billows amid clashes between armed groups affiliated with Libya's Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) in the Libyan capital on August 15, 2023. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images)
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images

Two powerful armed gangs, the “Special Deterrence Force” and “444 Brigade,” called a temporary halt to their vicious battle for power in Tripoli on Tuesday.

According to city officials, at least 45 people have been killed and over 100 injured over the previous 24 hours, including an unspecified number of civilians.

Libya has been a lawless wasteland of terrorists, warlords, armed political factions, and competing governments ever since former President Barack Obama’s disastrous military intervention in 2011, which unseated and killed deranged dictator Moammar Qaddafi without giving much thought to what or who would replace him, or what would happen to innocent people caught in the chaos.

Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi in 2010. (Victor Sokolowicz/Bloomberg via Getty)

Over a decade later, Libya has no functional central government. Instead, it has rival capitals in Tripoli and Sirte, each of which boasts a “prime minister.” The two governments occasionally resort to violence in futile attempts to settle their disagreements.

Libya is also swarming with armed gangs and terrorist groups, some of which have accumulated hefty fortunes by ruthlessly dominating territory and extracting protection money from the inhabitants. As usual with criminal gangs, these factions fight bloody battles over the most valuable turf. The government headquartered in Tripoli estimates that at least 45 people have been killed in gang battles this year.

The latest spasm of violence broke out on Monday after the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), a radical Islamist militia that controls Tripoli’s main airport and much of the surrounding coastal area, “arrested” a senior commander of the 444 Brigade, Mahmoud Hamza.

Hamza was seized at the SDF-controlled Mitiga airport by the SDF, which was deputized by the Tripoli government to aid in defending the city.

Hamza holds the rank of colonel in the Libyan military and was the leader of an SDF squad before breaking away to form his own group in 2020, taking men, weapons, and vehicles with him. He has been attempting to settle disputes between several militia groups. He was attempting to board a plane to Misrata when he was grabbed by SDF gunmen.

The SDF has detained 444 Brigade commanders before, sparking street battles between the two groups. This one was especially vicious. Nervous airlines moved their planes out of Mitiga airport, other militia groups mobilized their fighters, and terrified civilians scrambled to get out of the crossfire.

Heavy combat was reported in several locations, including the area around the Tripoli Medical Center. Tripoli’s Ambulance and Emergency Service declared a high alert and evacuated civilians from the districts that saw the most intense clashes.

The Tripoli government tried and failed to secure Hamza’s release, but city elders were then able to negotiate a ceasefire, during which Hamza was handed over to a third group called the Stabilization Security Apparatus.

A Libyan military official told Agence France-Press (AFP) on Thursday that Hamza was “released on Wednesday night and returned to his headquarters south of Tripoli.” The deal that secured his release also called for “withdrawal of fighters from the front lines” by both the SDF and 444 Brigade.

“Videos circulated on social media on Wednesday night showed Hamza dressed in military fatigues and surrounded by his fighters at the Tekbali barracks south of the Libyan capital,” AFP reported.

The Libyan military said on Thursday that the situation in Tripoli was “stable, with police patrols having been deployed,” and the Mitiga airport was able to resume operations. 

Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the prime minister from the Tripoli-based government, warned on Thursday that no further battles between militia groups would be tolerated.

Dbeibah gave a 45-minute televised address, surrounded by tribal elders, during which he said harming civilians is “forbidden.” He said his government was prepared to take stronger measures against the SDF and 444 Brigade if they resume fighting.


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