Some 30 civilians – nearly half of them children – have been killed in the last month alone in Benghazi as residents of Libya’s second city protested the spike in deaths during the country’s year-long civil war.
The dramatic rise in civilian casualties saw at least 14 children killed in May, a record high since the fighting erupted last summer between pro-government troops under General Khalifa Haftar and forces loyal to Libya Dawn, a rival administration in Tripoli.
The random shellings that killed the minors were allegedly perpetrated by Islamic State fighters and Dawn-affiliated groups whose rockets hit homes and playgrounds, according to army officials whose reports could not be independently verified.
The total death toll for May is gathered from numbers provided by Benghazi Medical Centre, al-Jalaa and Bouhdima hospitals, whose staffers told Libya Channel’s correspondent that they are suffering from a chronic lack of medical supplies and a shortage of medics, compounding the problem.
On Monday Benghazi residents and civil society activists gathered at al-Shuhada Garden in the downtown neighborhood of Barka, to protest against the killings and absence of international support to help the embattled families.
One child held a poster aloft reading “It is our right to play, it is our right to live, signed the children of Benghazi”, while other residents, who chanted against the violence, held banners condemning the lack of help from United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon and the UN children’s agency.
“UNICEF is just an empty word”, one banner read. “Where are the international organizations?” asked another.
In May Human Rights Watch condemned all sides for failing to protect civilians and for trapping them in conflict-ridden areas.
The New-York based watchdog reported that Libyan families and foreign civilians were unable to leave frontline downtown Benghazi districts including al-Bilad, Sidi Khreibish, and El-Sabri.
Promises of safe passage for non-fighters were not being followed through, the group added, keeping people in areas where food shortages, power cuts and lack of medical care was building a humanitarian crisis.
“All the forces involved need to take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director. “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,” she added.
Meanwhile wounded soldiers being treated in the eastern city staged their own protest on Monday at al-Jalaa hospital, saying they had been “abandoned” by the government they were fighting for. The men asked to be wheeled out on hospital trolleys in front of the building, to demonstrate against what they said was negligence and poor treatment since they were injured on the battlefield.
The internationally-recognized authorities, anchored in the eastern towns of Bayda and Tobruk, have been struggling to run the country after being chased out of Tripoli by Libya Dawn last summer. Their forces – under the leadership of newly-appointed army chief General Haftar – are fighting to win ground in Benghazi, as well the IS-stronghold of Derna and the west, around the capital.
IS, which first appeared in Libya in October, has complicated the conflict by recently joining in the street-by-street battle for Benghazi, which is now focused on the al-Laithi district, an area that was once an Islamist stronghold.
The jihadi group’s western affiliates swept control of the central city of Sirte last week, commandeering a military airbase and a major water supply pipeline to the capital.
UN-backed peace talks between representatives of the country’s two warring administrations are due to kick off on Sunday in Morocco. UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon, speaking at pre-dialogue talks in Algeria yesterday, said Libya was “at a limit” and this was the last chance to build a peace accord.
Leon highlighted the escalating humanitarian crisis, as well as the potential economic collapse and the rise of IS.