Libya battles escalate as coronavirus arrives in country

TUNIS (Reuters) – An intense bombardment shook Tripoli on Wednesday as new battles erupted around the capital hours after Libya reported its first case of coronavirus and despite U.N. calls for ceasefires around the world during the epidemic.

Residents of the Libyan capital, seat of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), said the shelling was the worst in weeks, shaking windows in the city centre miles from the front line in the southern suburbs.

“We are done in this country. There is a war and we hear clashes all day, fearing a missile will fall near us. Now there is coronavirus. If it spreads in Libya, I think we can only pray,” said Issa, 30, a shop owner in Tripoli.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar has been trying to capture Tripoli for almost a year, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia. The GNA is supported by Turkey and allied Syrian fighters.

An LNA shelling attack last week drew U.N. condemnation after it killed four girls and young women. On Tuesday, shells hit a prison in an area held by the GNA, also drawing U.N. anger.

Pro-GNA forces launched attacks on several fronts on Wednesday against the LNA, including at al-Watiya airbase, 125 km (80 miles) west of Tripoli, the closest such facility to the capital in LNA hands.

“In response to the heaviest bombardments Tripoli has seen, we launched a series of counter attacks against Haftar,” said Mohamed Geblawi, spokesman for the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement.

Geblawi cited what he called “indiscriminate shelling” by the LNA after both sides had agreed to a ceasefire to tackle the coronavirus.

A pro-GNA military operations room said its forces had captured LNA fighters, including some foreigners.

The LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said it had repulsed the attack and that the GNA had fielded Turkish and Syrian fighters. “The truce was not put into effect” by the pro-GNA forces, he added.

The escalation in the fighting could spell disaster for Libya’s already fragmented and badly stretched health system in handling the coronavirus, after authorities confirmed the first case of the disease late on Tuesday.

“Libyans have suffered for years under this brutal conflict, and now they face yet another threat to their health and wellbeing,” said Elizabeth Hoff, the World Health Organisation representative in Libya.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres had called for a complete ceasefire in conflicts around the world as governments and local authorities struggle with a pandemic that has spread to most countries.

“We sit at home hearing the clashes, which are a daily routine since 2011. But now we are scared of coronavirus. I am scared for my family. Libya doesn’t have a good healthcare system,” said Akram, a 28-year-old barista in Tripoli with three children.

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