Italian effort to stop migrants fuels bloody battle in Libya

CAIRO (AP) — It began when a Libyan militia paid by Italy to stop migrants heading to Europe intercepted a group of human traffickers offshore. That confrontation has spiraled into a weeks-long battle among rival militias for control of a Libyan coastal city that has left dozens dead.

The bloodshed in the city of Sabratha is in part an unexpected consequence of Europe’s effort to stem the flow of migrants from Libya across the Mediterranean. It illustrates how easily things can escalate out of control in the chaos of the North African country, where three different governments claim authority and the real power in many areas lies with local militias.

The Sabratha fight has expanded, bringing in outside factions, including Khalifa Hifter, the strongman who controls eastern Libya and is a rival of the weak, internationally recognized government based in Tripoli, headed by Fayez Serraj. Hifter appears to be using the conflict to obtain a foothold in the western part of the country.

Thousands of families have fled Sabratha, according to the Red Crescent and local officials. Fighting has endangered the city’s dramatic antiquity site — the remains of a 1,800-year-old Roman city. At one point, a militia besieged opposing fighters holed up inside the ruins, with snipers positioned on top of the monuments. Photos on line showed bullet holes in one monument.

“This is a war that started between human traffickers, then snowballed into an ideological and political one,” said al-Tahar al-Gharabili, head of the Sabratha Military Council, which answers to Serraj’s government.

Over the summer, Italy began funneling cash and logistical support to two major militias in Sabratha after they agreed to stop their involvement in human trafficking and instead act as a police force against it, stopping migrant boats. The deal was made through Serraj’s government, and the two militias — the Martyr Anas al-Dabashi militia, better known as al-Ammu’s militia, and Brigade 48 — were nominally turned into arms of its security forces.

The deal led to a dramatic drop in migration from Sabratha, a city on the western side of Libya’s Mediterranean coast that used to be the main launching point for migrant boats.

But voices in Libya decried the deal, fearing that the salaries and supplies would enrich the militias and make them more powerful. The boost to one side threw off the balance of power in Sabratha, triggering a backlash from other local militias.

Al-Gharabili said the conflict began when, last month, a force from the al-Ammu militia clashed with traffickers off shore, thwarting an attempt to move multiple boat-loads of migrants.

The traffickers came from the al-Wadi district, in eastern Sabratha. Because of al-Ammu’s crackdown, hundreds of migrants had been stuck in al-Wadi unable to leave, and the traffickers were desperate to move them, al-Gharabili said. “The situation exploded,” he said.

The next day, Sept. 17, a paramilitary force allied to al-Wadi opened fire on members of al-Ammu’s militia, killing one and wounding others.

Since then, at least 93 people have been killed, including eight civilians, and more than 180 wounded in battles that have carved up the city, according to Essam Karrar, the head of Sabratha Civil Society Federation.

Fighting the past few days has been more intense even than during the 2011 civil war, al-Gharabili said, as militias this week tried to capture al-Ammu’s headquarters, a former resort called Shahrazad. Hospitals, hotels and homes have been hit.

The core of the conflict is between al-Ammu and Brigade 48 militias on one side and, on the other, the al-Wadi militia and the Anti-ISIS Operation Room, a force of army officers created to fight the Islamic State group.