Intensifying clashes in the southern Libyan town of Murzuq involving air and drone strikes in recent days have left at least 90 people dead and displaced thousands of “terrified” civilians, the UN said on Tuesday.
“Casualties on all sides of the fighting have continued as a result of airstrikes by planes and drones, indiscriminate rocket attacks and shelling, and direct fighting on the ground,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
OCHA’s warning over the small oasis town echoes concerns by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and other UN agencies.
The alert follows reports by local media that the clashes involved tribal opponents of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) of commander Khalifa Haftar, which began an offensive on the southern outskirts of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, in April.
Asked about the identities of the victims in Murzuq, Mr. Laerke replied that they included children.
“It is a civilian area, it’s in a country where people tend - families tend - to be big and there are many children,” he said, before highlighting a deadly mortar strike on a house for displaced people in the Bendalwah neighbourhood earlier this month.
“We know for a fact at least (of) six children, two of them were killed, four of them were injured in a strike that hit a house, hosting internally displaced people on 8 August,” Mr. Laerke added.
According to the UN migration agency, IOM, 9,450 people have been displaced by the violence in and around Murzuq since the beginning of August.
At least 3,000 of them have been uprooted since violence intensified last week, IOM said.
“Most families previously displaced within neighbourhoods of Murzuq City have also left the town to nearby communities,” an IOM statement read. “Reported displacements include around 300 migrants from Niger, Chad and Nigeria.”
Families ‘too terrified to seek safety’
Nonetheless, many “are of course terrified that if they move, they will be perceived as affiliated to one side of the other and maybe targeted”, Mr Laerke said. “Some families are reluctant to leave the affected areas because they are afraid of reprisals.”
To respond to urgent needs, the UN and partner humanitarian organizations “are responding with emergency health care, food distribution, shelter and non-food items”, Mr. Laerke added, noting that access remains difficult, “due to the active fighting”.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization (WHO) shipped medical supplies to support health facilities in Murzuq’s conflict zone, with enough supplies to help 60,000 people for three months and 600 surgical procedures.
Access is far more limited inside Murzuq itself, “with many roads damaged and many roadblocks,” Mr. Laerke said.
Amid growing humanitarian needs, the OCHA spokesperson appealed to all parties involved in the fighting to “allow people to leave if they so wish, so they can reach a place where they can be assisted, and of course to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure in the first place, according to international humanitarian law.”
Additional support from the international community is needed to help the vulnerable, Mr. Laerke said, noting that the $202 million Humanitarian Response Plan for Libya is currently only 30 per cent funded.