- - Thursday, September 6, 2018

TRIPOLI, Libya — For many here, it was a symbol of the dysfunction that has plagued Libya since the death of the strongman.

The mass prison break Sunday south of the capital highlights how the oil-rich North African country still teeters on the edge of failed-state status nearly eight years after a NATO-backed campaign helped oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Most of the inmates who broke out of the Ain Zara prison were former officials associated with Gadhafi or rebels accused of massacres in the chaos that surrounded his death at the hands of a mob in 2011.

The path for their escape opened up when prison guards abandoned their posts as troops from opposing factions in the country’s civil war approached.

It’s unlikely that a political meltdown could be contained within the country’s borders. Aside from the lure of oil, Libya’s chaos could provide a haven for jihadi groups fleeing the wars in Iraq and Syria and exacerbate Europe’s migrant crisis by providing more unpoliced jumping-off points on the Mediterranean for human traffickers.

“The status quo in Libya is untenable,” Ghassan Salame, U.N. envoy to Libya, bluntly told the Security Council in a briefing Wednesday.

He cited clashes in the country’s oil-producing regions, weak leadership, incursions by Islamic State fighters and hunger strikes by refugees and asylum-seekers to protest their bleak living conditions, The Associated Press reported. The instability puts in doubt the country’s ability to organize and hold presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for Dec. 10, the envoy said.

More than 60 people have died in clashes around the country this week, according to the Libyan Health Ministry. On Tuesday, mortars aimed at a former U.S. Embassy compound in Tripoli set off a fire that ignited a nearby fuel tank. No Americans were hurt because the embassy was relocated to neighboring Tunisia in 2014.

The deaths of scores of civilians in seemingly endless militia turf wars have Libyans numbering the days of Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, the civilian architect of the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord, who has failed to establish control even in his own capital after nearly 2½ years in office.

The situation is tense and getting worse, locals say.

“My brother and his family went back to gather their things, but they were trapped in the fighting,” said Hussain Mohamed, a 38-year-old high school teacher in Al Hadhba, a southern suburb of Tripoli. “It feels like the authority has collapsed here.”

Heightening fears in the city, the International Organization for Migration confirmed that authorities released 290 African migrants from Tripoli detention centers and prisons. The sign of collapse is particularly alarming to European states, which are determined to stem the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean.

The U.N. mission in Libya on Tuesday announced that warring factions had agreed to the latest cease-fire for the capital, but few Libyans said they would return to Tripoli if they could remain with relatives in safer cities such as Zawiya, 28 miles to the west.

Still, Zakaria Zubi, a leader in the February 17th Movement, a secular militia at odds with both Mr. Serraj and the rival force in the east commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, denied that claim.

“There is no cease-fire,” said Mr. Zubi, a computer science professor in Misurata, about 120 miles east of Tripoli. “The United Nations, as always, meets with representatives from corrupt parties, then makes announcements that are unrelated to what is happening on the ground. Representatives of the corrupt Muslim Brotherhood agreed to a cease-fire, but we did not.”

Bewildering alliances

The political crosscurrents can be bewildering even for the locals to follow.

The February 17th Movement has joined an alliance of former fighters in the Libyan national army to oust the Government of National Accord. Individual neighborhoods are haphazardly parceled out to militia warlords to maintain order and provide security. The near-anarchy has kicked off fighting that civilians and combatants are calling “The Battle of Tripoli.”

Many of the city’s estimated 1.1 million people are wondering whether the uptick in fighting is a turning point for the embattled Mr. Serraj, a 58-year-old scion of a wealthy Tripoli family whose father served in the monarchy that Gadhafi overthrew when he came to power in 1969.

At the same time, many Libyans have denounced interference from Arab Gulf states backing the various Islamist militias. Gadhafi’s secular, authoritarian rule never would have tolerated the radical religious groups.

“Look how Serraj uses Saudi-supported radical Salafi groups close in thinking to ISIS as his personal bodyguards,” said Hassan Bassem, a 27-year-old former militia member who works as a petroleum engineer. “These men are called ‘Madkhalis’ because of their allegiance to Rabie Al Madkhali in Mecca. Serraj also put them in key police and intelligence posts.”

But as militia soldiers from Misurata and other cities moved toward the capital, American diplomats signed on to a joint statement with Britain, France and Italy supporting Mr. Serraj and the Government of National Accord, praising their work to promote reconciliation in Libyan politics.

Mr. Serraj declared himself acting defense minister Thursday. Many see the move as a clear signal that international efforts to support the prime minister are crumbling.

“Current U.N. efforts have failed, and right now they can only wait for the outcome of the battle of Tripoli,” said Wolfgang Pusztai, a former Austrian military attache and chairman of the advisory board to the National Council on U.S.-Libya relations. “After that, it is necessary to find an entirely new approach for the stabilization of Libya that sidesteps the GNA, and [to hold] immediate elections.”

Mr. Pusztai said Libya will reach stability and peace only through a decentralized approach that takes into consideration the country’s tribal and local loyalties and puts a priority on counterterrorism cooperation and humanitarian assistance such as demining training.

Booby traps, shells and mines in the capital kill an average of five people a day, local media reported.

Meanwhile, with French and Italian allies backing opposing sides in conflict — Paris is supporting Gen. Hifter’s Eastern Army while Rome is guarding its petroleum assets in the West with pro-Serraj militia — Mr. Pusztai said the situation demands leadership from Washington. That could be a long shot, given President Trump’s sharp criticism of the U.S. role in the 2011 Libya campaign.

“Since the U.N. plan failed, it is time for the Trump administration to designate a presidential special envoy with the authority to coordinate American efforts to shape the environment in Libya,” Mr. Pusztai said.

Some say they won’t be able to wait for peace much longer.

“It’s been impossible to sleep for the past week,” said Mr. Mohamed, the schoolteacher. “The children were terrified from the sound of exploding mortar shells, street gangs take advantage of clashes to rob people, and militias extort what they can at their roadblocks.”

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