Three children were among eight people killed in a rocket attack on a playground in Benghazi on Friday, as rights groups urged protection of civilians, who described the misery of life in the crossfire of a year-long war.
The youngest of the dead was a four year old boy who was killed alongside his two young brothers, aged five and seven, when a shell landed in a public park in Benghazi’s Birkah district. Among the five adults killed was a 75-year-old woman, news website Libya Herald reported.
There were unconfirmed reports of two further shellings in Benghazi neighborhoods which killed another five civilians, that would bring the Friday death toll to 13.
Army commander Fadhil al-Hassi blamed the deadly rocket strike on the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council a coalition of Islamist armed groups allied with Libya Dawn, a rival administration that swept control of Tripoli last summer.
“The army has made much progress and they suffered big losses,” al-Hassi said.
“We had been worried they would take revenge for that and indeed now they fired rockets,” he claimed.
Libya Channel was unable to reach the armed groups for comment.
Pro-government forces have been fighting the Shura Council since May last year when General Khalifa Haftar, who at the time was not sanctioned by the parliament, declared war on all militias and jihadis in the coastal city.
In recent months the internationally-recognized authorities, operating in the eastern towns of Bayda and Tobruk after Dawn’s takeover of the capital, backed General Haftar’s “Operation Dignity”, appointing him head of the official army.
Meanwhile the newly-founded Libyan chapter of the Islamic State – exploiting the growing security vacuum – has joined the battle for Benghazi. They were allegedly behind two previous indiscriminate shellings in the city’s Ard Baloun and Hay al-Salam districts, which killed 11 children when missiles landed on their homes two weeks ago.
One year on from the start of Haftar’s campaign, the government-backed forces have seized parts of Benghazi but are still battling Islamist groups for control of several neighborhoods, having a devastating effect on the civilian population.
Human Rights Watch urged all sides of the conflict to protect people in a Tuesday statement, adding that residents were being barred safe passage out of worst hit neighborhoods.
The New-York based watchdog said Libyan families and foreigners were trapped in the downtown neighborhoods of Al-Blad, Sidi Khreibish and Al-Sabri after fighters refused to let them leave. The areas are also suffering from food shortages, lack of medical care and from chronic power outages, the group said.
“It’s vitally important for the Libyan Army and militias in Benghazi to allow civilians safe passage and to facilitate access to take badly needed aid to the people inside,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director.
Residents of the beleaguered city told Libya Channel the chaotic street-by-street fighting in the worst hit areas made it impossible to determine where the safe spaces were.
“Day has become night. We can’t do anything during the day, at night we don’t sleep because of the shelling,” said Benghazi resident Ahmed, a 25-year-old student.
“Right now there is no clear frontline, it’s not a normal war – the fighting is street by street so it’s not safe anywhere and is really unpredictable,” he added, describing the fear of rockets landing on homes or sniper fire.
The youngest are the hardest hit, as the schools have been shut for months, playgrounds and parks have been shelled and they live under the fear of explosions and gunfire.
Over 300,000 people have fled the violence spilling into nearby cities like Bayda. Many are permanently homeless after their houses, swallowed by the moving front lines, have been flattened.
“God only knows what happened to the evacuated areas, we are not allowed to go there – the army keeps us away, but we know there are people trapped inside,” Ahmed added.
Some of the male residents in war-torn areas described staying put in their homes despite the fighting, fearing looters.
“I sent my family away for three months but remained by myself. The fighting was 24 /7 I spent most of those weeks hiding in one room, in one corner of the house, with no electricity, water, phone signal or internet,” said Qais who lives in Biloun, that for months was in the middle of a fierce battle.
Without cooking gas or electricity, some residents were forced to barbecue food outside at risk of being caught in the gunfire. “No one could to communicate with me for weeks at a time, I just sat there with the war all around me,” Qais added.
With no end insight for the fighting, Benghazi residents are preparing for months more fighting ahead.
“We do not feel 100% safe but we are staying put,” Qais said. “I don’t care about politics I just want peace.”