Under Haftar siege, Libya's Derna suffering 'huge human catastrophe'
Few outside human rights groups have responded to warlord Khalifa Haftar imposing a siege on Derna, a coastal city once controlled by the Islamic State group, and instigating a humanitarian crisis of his own.
The New Arab spoke with fighter from the Libyan militia now in control of the city, the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, to gain insights into a battle that the news media has often ignored.
"The city has been under siege for over a year, and its population is restricted on all levels - fuel, cooking gas, cash, medicine, and even people are prohibited from entering and leaving the city," Abu al-Braa al-Dernawi told The New Arab over Facebook Messenger.
"The city is subject to frequent airstrikes targeting residential neighbourhoods, even though there are no armed groups in the city itself."
Egypt, one of Haftar's international allies, has launched airstrikes on Derna in the past. The United Arab Emirates has also provided Haftar covert close air support throughout Libya - though whether this air support has extended to his fighters in Derna remains unknown.
Russia too backs Haftar with diplomatic cover. Qatar, meanwhile, supports the Government of National Accord (GNA), a caretaker government aligned with several Qatari-friendly militias and recognised by the United Nations.
Derna's Shura Council says it has no foreign supporters. "The Shura Council does not have any relationship with any country or any other group," al-Dernawi reiterated to The New Arab.
"The Council is a group of revolutionary battalions started in 2011."
Back in 2011, a Western-supported uprising ousted Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. In the wake of the civil war that followed al-Gaddafi's ousting, Libya's militias vied for influence over what became a series of city-states along the country's coast.
IS seized much of Derna in 2014 while affiliates of al-Qaeda maintained control of some neighbourhoods.
Only in 2015 did a coalition of militias including the Shura Council, which has alleged links to al-Qaeda, manage to expel IS from the city.
The United States, which has conducted airstrikes against IS in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, bombed Derna in November 2015.
Since IS' defeat in Derna, the Shura Council has struggled to find its place in Libya while fighting Haftar and rejecting the GNA.
"The Council has always considered any person or any new entity by the standards of what it offers the Libyan people," said al-Dernawi. "So far, the GNA has provided nothing new."
|The city is suffering a huge human catastrophe|
He noted that the GNA's attempts to reconcile with Haftar, a divisive public figure in Libya, had increased tensions between the Shura Council and politicians in Tripoli.
Without the support of regional powers such as the countries backing Haftar, the Shura Council has struggled to defend Derna.
"We depend on what we loot from Haftar's forces," al-Dernawi told The New Arab. "The city is suffering a huge human catastrophe. A resolution requires a serious attitude and serious communication. We need serious help in communicating with humanitarian organisations."
US African Command, which oversees the US anti-IS campaign in Libya, expressed little sympathy.
"The Darnah Mujahideen Shura Council is a coalition of Islamist militias that uses violence to establish Sharia governance in Darnah," Samantha Reho, an AFRICOM spokeswoman, told The New Arab. "The group espouses an ideology similar to al-Qaeda."
Reho declined to clarify whether IS still has a presence in Derna.
"Following the battlefield losses in 2016–2017, IS has maintained a low-level presence in Libya while they are likely attempting to recover," she said.
"IS probably continues to recruit foreign fighters and is likely to continue to do so, though we have not seen an increase in IS strength in the last several weeks."
Al-Dernawi spoke of the Shura Council's ideology only in vagaries: "To this day, it supports the friends of the revolution, most of whom are in Libya," he told The New Arab. "Democracy - as I think you know - violates a few parts of Sharia, but we like other parts of it."
The Shura Council's Islamist worldview has won it few friends in the international community, which seems to be warming to Haftar despite his bloody campaigns in Benghazi and Derna, and the many accusations of war crimes that he has faced along the way.
Haftar already subdued Benghazi. If nothing changes, he may very well conquer Derna before long.
Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian.
He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.