Acute shortages of medicines, equipment and staff are putting patients at risk in Benghazi, the Health Minister of Libya’s Interim Government said on Friday as the army continued to advance on Islamist fighter positions in the embattled city.
Reida El Oakley said there was no money in Libya’s health budget for 2016 and urged world powers to release funds frozen abroad, saying a fraction of that money could finance medical care “for years to come”.
Oakley said there was an urgent need for mobile clinics and trauma kits, as well as basic equipment such as gloves and gauze. A shortage of blood bags meant people trying to give blood had not been able to, he told journalists in Tunis. “This is how bad the situation is,” have added.
There was also a “desperate need for doctors and nurses,” he said as many foreign medical staff left more than a year ago. The city has fewer than 700 hospital beds, compared with 3,000 at the start of 2014.
Benghazi has been in the grips of conflict since divisive General Khalifa Haftar launched Operation Dignity to flush out Islamists armed groups – including jihadists -that controlled the city. He was later appointed head of the army and his war endorsed by the official authorities. After nearly two years of stalemate, the army has been making unprecedented gains in the city since last month.
Last week the army flushed groups including the so-called Islamic State, al-Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia, and armed coalition Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council out of the major districts of Laithi, Buatni and Sidi Fraj.
On Friday they announced further gains, capturing February 17th camp, a key militia base in the southwestern district of Garyunis. They also pushed forward in the nearby Benghazi University neighborhood, taking control of the campus. Land mines and IEDs planted in the area however slowed down the advance.
“There are fierce battles at the cement factory in Hawari,” Special Forces spokesman Milud al-Zway told Libya Channel – referring to a vast southern district that had been under IS control for months and has featured in IS propaganda videos. “Once we take the cement factory, we will push forward to Gawarsha and further west,“ he added, claiming the army now controls 60 percent of the city.
Battles also continue in the northeastern districts of Sabri and Suq al-Hut, where retreating Islamist fighters had also left a string of land mines delaying the army’s final push, troops in the area told.
Eyewitnesses on the ground told Libya Channel that several parts of the recently liberated Laithi district were covered in IS propaganda. “They had scrawled ‘this belongs to the Islamic State’ on the walls of people’s homes, and put up posters explaining what the caliphate is,” said one resident, who recently returned but did not want to be identified for security reasons. “They also painted their black flag on the walls, and on some buildings wrote ‘check in with the Islamic State police’,” he said, adding that the destruction was “unbelievable”.
Meanwhile the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council released a statement accusing Haftar’s forces of being “evil” and allied to toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. They called for “Muslim families” to rise put against the army’s push forward defending their retreat a “calculated military step”.
The council is a coalition of formers rebels from the 2011 uprising which unseated Gaddafi, who formed armed groups on the government payroll and controlled Benghazi before Haftar’s incursion. Battling to regain control of the city and allied to the rival government in Tripoli, the conflict has seen them in a marriage of convenience with other groups, fighting alongside designated terror organizations like Ansar al-Sharia and IS.
“[Haftar] has mobilized all the evil forces, from inside and outside the country, and all have heard and seen the 32 brigade commander raising the green flag,” the statement said, referring to pictures on social media that supposedly show army units brandishing the green flag of prerevolutionary Libya.
“We call upon our Muslim families to stand in support to the religion and preventing it from harm,” it added. “Regarding the Mujahideen’s withdrawal from some of the front-lines, it is a calculated military step to absorb the momentum of the brutal advance and to safeguard the Mujahideen’s lives,” it said.
Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood – one of the main groups behind the rival government in Tripoli- also released a statement condemning the Libyan army’s advance – calling it “terror” and accusing his forces of “indiscriminate shelling ” of residential areas.
“[The MB] condemns the terror and war in Benghazi by fighters jets and the indiscriminate shelling that has targeted residential areas, hospitals, the university, and historic districts of Benghazi,” the statement read. They then called the Libyan people stand against “military rule” in a veiled endorsement of their allies the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, who had called for help.
Despite celebrations of the army advance in Benghazi by local residents who have been able to return to their homes for the first time in 16 months, there have been concerns over the behavior of some of the soldiers.
UN Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler mentioned in a 2 March UN Security Council briefing that he was “deeply concerned” at “unconfirmed reports of human rights violations in some areas overtaken by the Libyan National Army,” but did not elaborate.
Amid the accusations, General Haftar has urged troops to avoid looting or burning homes calling such acts “violations of morals, religion and the law” in a statement last week.
Meanwhile the Interim Government’s Health Ministry push forwards with demands for further funds to manage the humanitarian crisis in the city.
Minister Oakley said Libya’s health budget would normally be about $1 billion, but less than $500 million could cover essential medical needs this year if used prudently.
He said the international community had been waiting for the long-delayed approval of a UN-backed unity government to release frozen funds, but that this was the wrong approach and the money could be disbursed transparently through the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO).
“The patients are the ones who are paying the price,” he said.
WHO representative Syed Jaffer Hussain said a U.N. appeal for $50 million for basic and emergency healthcare this year had generated pledges of just $2 million.