Fighting escalates in Libya’s Derna, U.N. says

Fighting has escalated in the Libyan city of Derna, with air raids, shelling of residential areas and heavy ground clashes, the United Nations humanitarian office said on Thursday.

There were severe water, food and medicine shortages, and electricity and water were completely cut off for the city’s 125,000 residents, it said in a report that described the violence as “unprecedented” there.

The eastern city has been encircled since July 2017 by the Libyan National Army (LNA), whose commander Khalifa Haftar opposes the internationally recognized government based in the country’s west.

Located on the coast around 270 km (165 miles) from the border with Egypt, it is the only major town in eastern Libya outside LNA control.

“The LNA has announced that it now has control over the city’s eastern and western entrances … and surrounding areas where clashes have been taking place,” the U.N. report said.

Haftar’s forces are trying to wrest the city from a coalition of local fighters and Islamists known as the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) or Derna Protection Forces (DPF).

Haftar says he is trying to rid Libya of the threat of militant Islamists. Critics accuse him of branding all his opponents as “terrorists” as he seeks to expand his power.

The U.N. report said the LNA announced on Tuesday it had taken control of Derna’s highest area and the DPF subsequently announced its withdrawal from the city’s industrial zone.

“Local sources report that DPF are currently taking positions amongst civilian infrastructure in residential areas, mostly in the center of the city and reportedly in civilian clothing,” the U.N. report said, adding that civilians were being prevented from leaving the city.

Until this month, the LNA’s campaign had been largely limited to occasional air strikes and bombardments. Since May 22, indiscriminate shelling had killed at least five civilians, including two children, the U.N. said.

Egypt, which backs the LNA, has also carried out air strikes in Derna against what it said were training camps sending militants into Egypt to carry out attacks.

The LNA says its rivals in Derna are linked to al Qaeda. Jihadist group Islamic State established a presence in Derna in 2014, but was pushed out by the DMSC.

The U.N. said no aid has entered the city since mid-March, apart from a delivery of kidney dialysis materials and medication earlier this week.

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