Libya: Haftar forces should end forced displacement of Tebu families

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

On 24 August, paramilitary armed groups affiliated with Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) under the command of Khalifa Haftar, who controls vast swathes of Libyan territory, arrested hundreds of civilians in the south of the country, including members of the Tebu ethnic minority, and detained them in a military base in inhumane conditions. Although the LAAF-affiliated armed groups released women and children, they prevented them from returning to their homes while continuing to detain an unknown number of men, both from Tebu minority as well as migrants. CIHRS calls on the detaining authorities to release all those still arbitrarily arrested, to refrain from targeting civilians during military operations, and to end the forced displacement of hundreds of Tebu families.

While the declared objective of the operation was to “cleanse” southern Libya of armed groups, CIHRS found that armed forces under the Tarek Ibn Zeyad battalion, notorious for committing human rights violations, terrorized civilians by the use of machine guns. They rounded up mostly women and children who did not appear to represent any threat, and bussed them 200 km away aboard military trucks. After releasing the women and the children on 29 August, the armed forces prevented them from returning home, only allowing them to collect their belongings. Many of the families have since been sleeping in the open air without any shelter.

Personal safety has become illusory for civilians in Libya, given the widespread human rights and international humanitarian law violations. Libyan authorities issue official decrees delegating sweeping powers to these armed groups in order to obtain their backing, putting them in charge of security and law enforcement without any accountability. These paramilitary groups are then incorporated into the security establishment, without a proper or genuine national training program. Both major Libyan political forces –the Haftar-led LAAF and the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli – are committing grave human rights violations and breaches to international humanitarian law, with the complicity of States providing weapons and ammunition to armed groups in Libya.

“Under the guise of protecting their borders, LAAF and their paramilitary groups are terrorizing civilians. They rounded up entire families, put them in detention in inhumane conditions, and are now adding to their plight by barring them from going back home,” said Ziad Abdeltawab, executive director at CIHRS.

According to two eyewitnesses who spoke to CIHRS, dozens of military vehicles and armed pickups belonging to Tarek Ibn Zeyad battalion entered “The Chinese company” neighborhood, an unfinished construction site in Umm al Araneb, a city 950 km south of Tripoli. The neighborhood is mainly inhabited by hundreds of families from the Tebu ethnic minority, who live as nomadic tribes in southern Libya; they found refuge in the neighborhood after being internally displaced from other Libyan cities. Many migrants also live there. Hundreds of people were arrested on 24 August, a majority of them women and children, and bussed to Tamanhint military base, 200 km away from Umm al Araneb.

Mona, a Tebu woman (name changed for security reasons) who spoke to CIHRS by phone from her detention location in Tamanhint, recounted that around 11 in the morning on Friday 24 August, she heard a bang on her door, where she found around eight armed and men wearing masks and military uniforms in front of her home. They asked her to let them in, but she refused and closed the door. They then broke down the front door, grabbed her violently by the arms and forced her out of her home, doing the same to her 19-year-old daughter. The armed men dragged the two women to an open truck, where they saw dozens of other people, mostly women and children, being amassed. Mona said that the armed men did not explain why she was being arrested nor did they give her the opportunity to contact any member of her family. She said they then drove for several hours in the desert until reaching a site that she could identify as the Tamanhint military base. She told CIHRS that she was being held there with many women and children in inhumane conditions, sleeping in the open without mattresses and with no access to food or adequate sanitation. Although Mona and her daughter were released on 29 August, the authorities told them that they could not return to their home except to recover their belongings.

M.O, a Tebu man, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told CIHRS that on 24 August, he was in the market of Marzak, a city 90 km from Umm al Araneb, when he received a phone call from his mother, alerting him about the ongoing military operation. He drove back to the city, where he saw military vehicles and trucks full of women and children departing. When he went home, he did not find his mother and two sisters, who were among those arrested. He then came across armed men he identified as military personnel from the 128 Katiba, also affiliated to LAAF. He showed them his Libyan national ID, asked them about his family’s whereabouts, and they told him to look for them in the Tamanhint military base. Two days later, on Sunday evening, his mother and sisters were released among twelve other people. They were told by the authorities that they could not return home; they were instead directed by the authorities to the police station in Umm al Araneb. Once at the station, the women were compelled to sign a paper, reviewed by CIHRS, which authorizes to collect their furniture and other belongings.

CIHRS reviewed several videos filmed by eyewitnesses during the military operation. In one of them, we hear the sound of machine guns being fired in the neighborhood while men in military gear run behind women and children and beat some of them with batons. In another video, released by an official Facebook page affiliated with LAAF, with the footage labeled as showing “the deportation of families of Chadian opposition groups,” we see dozens of women and young children being amassed in open trucks surrounded by vehicles loaded with heavy artillery.

The spokesperson of the LAAF announced that the military operation’s objective, conducted by the Tarek ibn Zeyad Batallion, was to protect Libya’s southern borders from Chadian armed militants. Thousands of Chadian nationals were expelled by the battalion, the spokesperson said, which “struck hard” against Chadian armed groups.

While LAAF claimed that they were targeting Chadian armed groups, the testimonies received by CIHRS and the videos reviewed, purportedly show that those arrested were mainly Libyan nationals from the Tebu ethnic minority, who have suffered from several deadly attacks in the past. The Independent Fact Finding Mission on Libya, established by the United Nations, found “reasonable grounds to believe that the Libyan Arab Armed Forces and its affiliated groups killed members of the Tebu community (in Murzak) in February 2019 and that fighting triggered displacements.” On 28 November 2019, another attack by the same perpetrators killed around 12 civilians, including 9 children.

This incident occurs in the context of heightened tensions in the country whereby civilians suffer from continuous armed clashes between rival groups vying for control of Libya. On 14 August, 27 people were killed by the use of medium and heavy weapons in a civilian neighborhood of Tripoli by armed groups affiliated to the GNU, while 106 people were injured and 234 persons displaced; three public hospitals and sixty ambulances were damaged, according to the official medical sources, as well as many public, residential, and commercial buildings in the vicinity of the violence. These clashes led to a two-day disruption of public life in the city, including the suspension of studies and air traffic at Mitiga International Airport, where the Special Deterrence Force is stationed.

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