UN warns of high civilian casualties in Libya violence

Published December 23rd, 2014 - 02:07 GMT

Hundreds of civilians in Libya have been killed in fighting since late August, the United Nations said on Tuesday, warning commanders of armed groups that they could face prosecution for possible war crimes including executions and torture.

Almost four years after a NATO-backed war ended Muammar Gaddafi's one-man rule in 2011, Libya is struggling with instability as two rival administrations compete for power and warring armed factions skirmish for control of territory, especially oil sites, across the North African state.

Vying for legislative authority are the newly-elected House of Representatives, the internationally recognized government headed by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani, which convenes in Tobruk, and the Islamist administration, which continues to convene in Tripoli.

The conflict has driven at least 120,000 people from their homes and caused a humanitarian crisis, said a joint report by the UN human rights office and UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) that also documents shelling of civilian areas.

The toll includes an estimated 100 people killed in fighting between rival armed groups in Warshefana, near Tripoli, between late August and early October, and 170 killed in fighting in the Nafusa mountains to the southwest, it said.

Some 450 people have been killed in Benghazi since fighting escalated in mid-October. Hospitals in the city have been hit or occupied by armed groups, the report said.

"There is a serious lack of law and order, there is absolutely no accountability, so these violations are continuing with impunity, and there has been no effort to really stop that," UN human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a news briefing in Geneva on Tuesday.

"Some of these crimes may amount to war crimes," she said.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating the situation in Libya, but its chances of pursuing perpetrators are far from certain. In 12 years of operation it has secured just three convictions.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said the threat of prosecution should, in any case, make militia leaders think twice about their conduct.

"As a commander of an armed group, you are criminally liable under international law if you commit or order the commission of grave human rights abuses or fail to take reasonable and necessary measures to prevent or punish their commission," he said.

Amnesty International said in a report late October that both pro-government and rebel militias vying for control of western Libya are committing war crimes including torturing detainees and targeting civilians.

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