TUNIS (Reuters) - Libya is turning into “an experimental field for all kinds of new weapons systems”, the United Nations’ acting special envoy said, with foreign supporters of its warring parties shipping in arms and fighters in violation of an embargo.
Libya’s conflict escalated sharply this month, with fierce fighting on several different fronts in the west of the country despite urgent calls from the U.N. and aid agencies for a truce to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
The new wave of fighting has been fuelled by arms imported from abroad, the U.N. acting envoy Stephanie Williams said in an online news conference.
“We have something called the RPO-A flame thrower, which is some kind of thermobaric system that is being used in the southern suburbs of Tripoli. We have new UAVs (drones) that are being brought in, including a UAV that is essentially like a suicide UAV that explodes on impact,” Williams said.
“These are just two examples of very frightening systems that are being deployed in an urban setting which is completely unacceptable,” she added.
Concerns that the conflict may have taken a dark new turn emerged late on Wednesday when the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) said it was investigating a possible chemical weapons attack on its forces.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern-based Khalifa Haftar has been shelling the capital Tripoli, the seat of the GNA, since launching a military campaign to capture the city a year ago.
Pro-GNA forces have in recent weeks mounted their own offensives to drive back the LNA, capturing some towns in the northwest last week and moving towards Haftar’s main strategic centre in the region, the town of Tarhouna.
The LNA is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt, the GNA by Turkey, whose military support from January onwards has helped change the balance of power on the ground.
The GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said in a message to Reuters that the reports of fighters being affected by nerve gas in the Tripoli suburb of Salahedine were based on initial reports from field hospitals.
“The GNA is currently investigating,” he added. It will await a final report before informing the U.N.’s chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, the ministry said.
The LNA spokesman, Ahmed Mismari, described the report that chemical weapons may have been used, in a statement as “rumours and lies”.
Williams said it was “a very, very concerning report”.
“We as the UN call on all of those who are violating the arms embargo, including countries who sat down at the table in Berlin, signed up to respect the arms embargo, but yet continue to blatantly violate it. And that must stop.”
Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Hugh Lawson