UN chief shocked at Libya mass graves in recently freed town

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FILE – In this Jan. 17, 2020, file, photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter joins a meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Athens. The U.S. military Tuesday, May 26, 2020 accused Russia of deploying fighter planes to conflict-stricken Libya to support Russian mercenaries aiding east-based forces in their offensive on the capital, Tripoli. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep shock late Friday at the discovery of mass graves in Libyan territory recently recaptured from forces commanded by Khalifa Hifter, and called for a transparent investigation.

The U.N. chief also called on Libya’s U.N.-supported government to secure the mass graves, identify the victims, establish the causes of death and return the bodies to next of kin. He offered U.N. support in carrying it out, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

“The secretary-general once again reminds all parties to the conflict in Libya of their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Dujarric said.

The United Nations said earlier Friday that at least eight mass graves have been discovered, mostly in the town of Tarhuna, a key western town that served as a main stronghold for Khalifa’s east-based forces in their 14-month campaign to capture the capital Tripoli.

The discoveries have raised fears about the extent of human rights violations in territories controlled by Hifter’s forces, given the difficulties of documentation in an active war zone.

Philippe Nassif, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said the group was working to verify the mass killings.

“We want to be able to go in, or have the U.N. go in, and collect evidence of potential war crimes and other atrocities … so eventually a process takes place where justice can be served,” he said.

Last week, militias allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli recaptured Tarhuna, some 65 kilometers (41 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital, their latest in a string of battlefield successes that reversed most of Hifter’s gains. Earlier, the government said it regained control of all of Tripoli’s entrance and exit points and Tripoli airport.

Fathi Bashagha, the interior minister in the U.N.-supported government, said earlier this week that authorities were documenting evidence of alleged war crimes in Tarhuna, noting that preliminary reports indicated dozens of victims found in the city’s mass graves had been buried alive.

Bashagha also said that special investigative teams uncovered a shipping container in Tarhuna full of charred bodies, presumably of detainees, and blamed powerful militias loyal to Hifter for “heinous crimes.” A feared Hifter-allied militia called al-Kaniyat, notorious for its targeting of dissenters, had controlled the town.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters on Thursday he was “troubled” by reports that Tripoli forces had discovered bodies of civilians, in addition to land mines and other explosive devices in territory retaken from Hifter’s forces.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

Forces under Hifter launched an offensive trying to take Tripoli in April 2019, and the crisis in the oil-rich country had steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervened despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.

Hifter’s offensive is supported by France, Russia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other key Arab countries. The government in Tripoli is backed by Turkey — which sent troops and mercenaries to protect the capital in January — as well as Italy and Qatar.

The U.N. political mission in Libya said it convened a meeting with a delegation from Hifter’s forces on June 3 and another meeting Tuesday with a delegation from the U.N.-supported government. Guterres hopes that a cease-fire will be agreed soon, Dujarric said.

Schenker said he sees the escalating proxy war between Russia and Turkey in Libya as a challenge to regional stability, as well as a “tragedy for the Libyan people looking for peace and end to foreign intervention.”

Libya is teetering on the brink of a new escalation as Tripoli militias wage a campaign to recapture the coastal town of Sirte, which would provide access to the country’s vast oil fields under Hifter’s control. The intensified fighting has forced nearly 24,000 people to flee their homes in the last week, according to U.N. humanitarian officials.

Despite intensified diplomatic activity to bring the sides to the negotiating table, Turkey appears keen to shore up its presence in western Libya. On Friday, Turkey’s navy and air force conducted exercises in the Mediterranean Sea near Libya, officials said, an apparent show of backing for Tripoli.

The Turkish military said the drill was meant to test and develop Turkey’s ability to command and execute long-distance operations. A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations, said the maneuvers took place in international waters and airspace off Libya’s coast.

The military said 17 warplanes, based in the central Turkish air base of Eskisehir, and eight frigates took part in Thursday’s “Open Sea Training.” The drill lasted for eight hours and took place along a 1,000 kilometer (625 mile) -route from the Turkish coast and back.

Turkey’s escalating support, including armed drones and thousands of Syrian mercenaries, signals its desire to gain more leverage in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara signed a maritime deal last fall with the Tripoli-based government that would grant it access to an economic zone across the Mediterranean, despite the objections from regional rivals Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Turkey has said it will begin exploring for natural resources there within months.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Isabel DeBre in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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