Casualties from the battle for Libya’s capital mounted on Tuesday while Islamic State killed three people in a desert town, illustrating how jihadists may exploit renewed chaos.
Medical facilities reported 47 people have been killed and 181 have been wounded in recent days as eastern forces seek to take Tripoli from an internationally-recognized government, the World Health Organization said.
That was a higher figure than numbers given by either side, and appeared to be made up mainly of fighters, although it also comprised nine civilians including two doctors, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in Geneva.
The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s army – seized the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year before heading toward Tripoli this month.
They are fighting on the southern side of the city, where witnesses said on Monday afternoon the LNA had lost control of a former airport and withdrawn down the road.
The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a UN-brokered deal that Haftar boycotted, is seeking to repel the LNA with the help of armed groups who have rushed from Misrata in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.
Sarraj’s forces carried out an air strike on an LNA position in the suburb of Suq al-Khamis on Tuesday, a resident and an eastern military source said, without giving more details.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a ceasefire, a return to a UN peace plan, and a halt to Haftar’s push.
Far south of Tripoli, the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for attacking the town of Fuqaha, where residents said three people were killed and another kidnapped.
Fuqaha is controlled by fighters loyal to Haftar, who casts himself as a foe of Islamist extremism though he is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mold of Gaddafi.
IS has been active in Libya in the turmoil since the Western-backed overthrow of Gaddafi eight years ago.
It took control of the coastal city of Sirte in 2015 but lost it the following year to local forces backed by US air strikes, and now operates in the shadows. The attack on Fuqaha indicated IS may be looking to exploit gaps left by movements of Haftar’s troops.
Libya’s potential slide into civil war threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scrap UN plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.
“There are fears that the civilian death toll will rise rapidly as the fighting intensifies and spreads into more densely populated parts of the city,” said Amnesty International’s regional deputy, Magdalena Mughrabi.
On Monday, a warplane took out Tripoli’s only functioning airport, and the number of displaced people – 3,400 at the last UN count – is continuing to mount, alongside the casualties.