Under fire on Libya’s front lines

Since the spring, pro-government militias and Khalifa Hifter, a renegade commander from eastern Libya, have been locked in the most violent conflict in the Libyan capital Tripoli since the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.

It is a war fueled in part by outside powers, which have been breaking a U.N. arms embargo to supply a larger number of sophisticated weapons than ever before. It is a conflict that has already left nearly 900 people dead, including 97 civilians. Tens of thousands of Libyans have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands are either trapped inside battle zones or directly affected by clashes.

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This is a conflict in which no targets seem off limits. At least 19 ambulances and four hospitals and clinics have been hit by airstrikes or shelling. An airstrike on a detention camp holding mostly African migrants, who had hoped to escape across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, killed at least 53 people in early July and wounded 130 others. The government blamed Hifter’s forces. Scores of other civilians have been killed or injured, some inside their homes, by indiscriminate shelling. Entire neighborhoods on Tripoli’s southern edges, shattered by shelling and gunfire, are now abandoned wastelands.

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Then three wounded fighters were rushed in. One fighter had minor leg injuries. Another had a hole in his back from shrapnel.

The third fighter was in critical condition, with severe chest injuries. He was placed into an ambulance and taken to a hospital in Tripoli.

Libyan militias have poured into the capital, Tripoli, to battle over the future of this North African nation. Western Libya has dispatched fighters to support the U.N.-backed government and resist an offensive by Hifter, a strongman backed mostly by militias from the east. Many of the fighters fought in the revolution that toppled Gaddafi. Since then, they have known nothing but war. “The level of polarization and the willingness of young fighters to travel hundreds of miles to go kill other Libyans are just unheard of,” said Jalel Harchaoui, an analyst at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague.

Commanders and fighters told us that Hifter’s forces were better equipped. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and Russia are supporting Hifter. Turkey and Qatar among others are backing the U.N.-supported government. After sweeping through southern Libya, Hifter launched his surprise offensive on Tripoli in early April. The 75-year-old commander, a dual U.S.-Libyan citizen who lived for years in Northern Virginia, vowed to take the capital in two days. But instead the western militias united and rose up against him. Today, there is a military stalemate, with each side unable to push forward and hold territory.

On this evening in Tripoli's Yarmouk neighborhood, pro-government forces had fired at Hifter's men. Now the pro-government soldiers expected retaliation.

Like most of the militias fighting Hifter, they were from the coastal city of Misurata. They were in their 20s and 30s. Some were trained as engineers, others traders and laborers.

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A sniper observes the movement on the front line from a makeshift military position in a house.

Suddenly, an explosion rocked the building. Hifter’s forces had begun shelling again with mortars. It was time to leave.

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Tripoli’s front lines are constantly shifting. The clashes occur on the southern edge of the capital, while in downtown Tripoli, life appears normal. People frequent cafes, go to work, play in parks. But under the surface, there is fear. Every day, residents check Facebook community pages and other social media to see if the front lines have changed, just as denizens of other cities check the traffic or weather. Those at a distance from the fighting regularly call to check on relatives who have remained in battle zones to protect their homes from thieves and pillaging militias.

On another day, we encountered a family fleeing their home.

Halima, 45, and Imad, 46, and their three children, ages 4 to 10, were carrying bags of clothes, food, toys and photo albums. They had been returning to check on their house from time to time, often staying until the electricity went out. “This is the final time,” said Halima. “We are not coming back.”

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Some fighters taunted the sniper, yelling, “Shoot me.” Others flashed victory signs.

Finally, one fighter yelled: “Let’s go deal with this sniper.”

They pushed forward with their technical — a pickup truck with a mounted heavy weapon — and on foot until they reached a sand barrier.

They opened fire and continued shooting until, finally, there was silence.

The guns fell still.

But the battle would rage on.