On the outskirts of Libya's capital, Tripoli, the residents of an area known as Warshefana are surrounded on all sides by armed militias who, in addition to attacking built-up areas, have imposed what amounts to a siege, blocking the entry of food and medicine.
The fighters form part of a militia coalition that took effective control of Tripoli two weeks ago. They have been heavily shelling Warshefana from their surrounding positions for the last week and have so far killed more than 70 residents, including at least 12 children. An additional 140 are believed to be injured.
The Warshefana are a tribe often seen as having been loyalists to Moammar Gadhafi's regime. They once supported militias from Zintan, including Othman Mlekta's al-Qaqaa, in their long battle in Tripoli against allies of their attackers. The militias now besieging the tribe see its members as traitors to Libya's revolution, which they claim to be upholding.
According to residents who have spoken to local media, the Warshefana's al-Zahra Hospital is short on supplies, yet the casualties keep coming. Militias have burned some Warshefana houses, and one Warshefana official claimed that the militias have bulldozed houses.
The fighters, primarily from the town of Zawiyah, are aligned with the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) coalition that captured Tripoli International Airport on Aug. 23. The group has re-declared the authority of the previously disbanded Islamist-aligned General National Congress (GNC) in the capital, in opposition to the newly elected parliament in Tobruk.
The Zawiyan forces are led by Shaaban Hadia, also known as Abu Obeida al-Zawi, a prominent commander and head of the Libyan Revolutionary Operations Room, the group that kidnapped former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan in October. Hadia was arrested in Egypt in January but then released in exchange for the freedom of five Egyptian diplomats taken hostage in Libya by his fighters.
On Sept. 9, rockets likely fired by the Zawiyah forces hit homes in the Siyad area, killing 13 people, including a family of five and their three neighbors.
The attack on the Warshefana tribe is part of a wider struggle for supremacy that is taking place across Libya between various feuding factions defined by regional identity, pragmatic alliances and, occasionally, ideology.
“There are ideological justifications given for the violence against Warshefana, as in the rest of Libya, but there are also pragmatic underpinnings to this attack,” said Claudia Gazzini, a Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“The attack on Warshefana began as a criminal operation by Zawiyan forces who believed elements of the Warshefana were essentially a criminal gang and should be held accountable. It was supposed to be an anti-gangster operation,” she told Al-Monitor.
“This attack is also part of a struggle that is about winning and eliminating enemies. But it is not only a struggle for power, it is also a struggle for survival between these groups that is playing out nationally,” she said.
The Warshefana roughly fall into an alliance of forces, along with the Zintani militias of al-Qaqaa and the al-Madani Brigades; the Saiqa militia in Benghazi, led by Col. Wanis Bukhamada; and a group of senior military officers led by the retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter, which supports Libya's House of Representatives parliament in Tobruk and its government led by Abdullah al-Thani.
The Libyan Revolutionary Operations Room and other Zawiyah militias are aligned with a group of militias from Misrata that operate under the banner of Libya Dawn, including the powerful Libya Shield One, which is coordinated by retired GNC member Saleh Badi.
They have long been building closer ties with Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, and they support the GNC, which they re-declared in Tripoli following the elected House of Representatives' withdrawal from the capital. On Sept. 7, the GNC declared its own cabinet led by Omar al-Hassi to rival that of the House of Representatives.
Since the Libya Dawn forces took control of the Tripoli airport, there have been indications of revenge attacks against opposing forces that used to be based in the city. The homes of as many as 80 families from Zintan may have been “attacked and looted,” and dozens of Zintanis have been kidnapped, according to a report by the Crisis Committee of Zintan’s municipal council. Fighting in Tripoli has certainly caused serious damage. The Tripoli local council stated that violence has displaced at least 12,600 families.
The security situation around Tripoli is so tenuous that the House of Representatives has even taken up residence offshore. A luxury ship known as the Elyros has been hired for the families and guests of the 188 parliamentarians to live and meet on, and is docked at Tobruq port.
The ship's presence split the House with some members, including Tripoli representative Mosab al-Abed, claiming they would refuse its comforts, but others have taken to it. Libya's elected parliament's meeting not only far from the capital but also away from land has led some to question just how distant the parliament has become from the people.
Both the Libya Dawn coalition and forces loyal to Hifter have recently made advances toward Libya's southern tribes. Misrata forces sent a delegation led by Mohamed al-Raqoubi to the Amazigh town of Obari to deal with the Tuareg. The Tuareg leaders rejected the Misratan appeal for support two days later.
However, as many as 1,000 fighters of the Tebu minority from southwest Libya are currently heading to Benghazi to reinforce Hifter's forces after a similar delegation requested their support in fighting the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia, led by Sheikh Muhammed Ali al-Zahawi.
Islamist militias aligned with Ansar al-Sharia — who are still fighting Hifter's anti-Islamist group — are believed to have kidnapped 25 soldiers and killed five more in Benghazi on Sept. 10. Their forces recently withdrew from fortified positions in the city in advance of an expected major assault by Hifter.
“The attack on Warshefana is a strong reminder that it is a war crime to attack and shell civilian areas, and that where there are problems in Libya, they must eventually be dealt with through negotiations,” Gazzini said. “The only strategy for bringing things forward is for people to have the courage to engage in dialogue and for all sides to recognize that they will have to give things up to bridge the gaps and unify.”
An official in Libya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs added, "We have constantly condemn acts of violence in and around Tripoli, and have specifically condemned the shelling as criminal. We're coordinating with the Supreme Council of Libya's elders in order to reach a peaceful settlement."