Italy has blamed France for instigating the week-long clashes that have devasted the Libyan capital of Tripoli with the country’s interior minister Matteo Salvini demanding greater support for the Libyan authorities in the face of French aggression.
Rome denied reports that Italy could send in special forces to support the UN-backed government, led by Fayez Serraj, in Tripoli but is seeking to provide backing for its ally after violence that has left at least 50 people dead and 138 wounded. Efforts to stabilise the capital were boosted by the dispatch of some 450 vehicles loaded with fighters from the city of Misrata with orders to help bring about a lasting ceasefire.
The Serraj government has failed to stabilise Tripoli in some of the worst conflict the city has seen in years.
France played a crucial role supporting rebels in the 2011 revolution against dictator Muanmar Gaddafi. It has clashed repeatedly with the new Italian government over its approach to migration and the European Union.
Mr Salvini, who has taken a hard-line approach against migration, told reporters: "Italy should advocate for peace and stability in the Mediterranean and the incursion of others which only act upon economic prompts should not replace peace." When asked about Libya’s migration problem, of which Italy has taken much of the brunt, Mr Salvini said: “Ask France about that.”
He indicated he would be prepared “to take some risk” and visit Libya to help the country find peace. “Italy must be the protagonist of the Mediterranean stabilisation process,” he added. Italy has worked hard to clamp down on migration with the Serraj government since last summer.
Italian defence minister, Elisabetta Trenta, reinforced the message, pointin the finger at Paris in a Facebook post: “Of course, it is undeniable that today (Libya) is in this situation because someone, in 2011 put its interests (above) those of Libyans and Europe itself. France has its responsibilities in this respect!”
Italy has some soldiers in Libya offering protection to diplomatic officials as well as the Tripoli harbour base of the UN, who Mr Salvini said he was regularly in contact with. Italy is the only European country to have fully reopened its Tripoli embassy and also operates a military hospital in Misrata.
The US mission to Libya said its compound, closed since 2014, did not suffer material damage when a rocket hit a nearby fuel tank and sent thick smoke billowing into the air.
Over 400 inmates broke out of a jail in the district of Ain Zara on Sunday, including some former henchman of slain dictator Muanmar Gaddafi. There were also widespread reports that Facebook had been blocked on Monday. Libyan utility LPTIC, which owns the two state telecoms firm said the clashes led to outages but did not directly comment on the Facebook claims.
Misrata’s experienced troops gained worldwide attention when they ousted ISIS from its former Libyan stronghold of Sirte in late 2016. A well-placed source in its operations room, known as Bunyan Al-Marsous said further fighters were expected to be sent to Tripoli to support stabilisation efforts.
"The reason for going is to stop the war in Tripoli. (We) went to resolve the conflict with our anti-terrorism force led by commander Mukhtar Al-Jahawi," the source, who was not cleared to speak to the media, told The National.
Frontlines are moving rapidly and information difficult to verify, but it is believed that the full entry into the fighting of a pro-government force, known as Rada, on Monday helped initially push back a brigade known as the Kani or the Seventh, and supporters of notorious militiaman Salah Badi, who helped raze Tripoli’s airport to the ground in 2014.
Rada controls the capital’s only airport that hasn’t been destroyed but it has been closed by the fighting. The ultra-conservative group runs a jail holding some 2,500 people on the airports groun and denied claims inmates had escaped or been transferred.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Libya said at least 19 civilians had died over the course of the conflict, including women and children, with camps for internally displaced people among those shelled.