Escalating conflict in Derna is having a devastating impact on civilians, with humanitarian workers denied access to deliver lifesaving assistance, the United Nations said.
Derna has long been encircled by forces loyal to east Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar, trying to wrest the city from a coalition of local fighters and Islamists known as the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC).
Located on the coast around 266 km from the Egyptian border, it is the only major town or city in the east of Libya not controlled by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
After Haftar returned from medical treatment in Paris this month the LNA stepped up its campaign, launching ground attacks against its opponents on Derna’s outskirts.
The UN Libya mission’s humanitarian co-ordinator, Maria Ribeiro, said intensification of the conflict created an urgent need for humanitarian access and had been repeatedly denied.
“Shortages in medicine and medical supplies are reaching critical levels and the first food shortages are being reported,” a statement said.
“The continued encirclement of Derna and the escalation of conflict has a devastating impact on civilians who fear for their lives.”
Until this month, the LNA campaign was largely limited to occasional air strikes and bombardments.
Egypt, which backs the LNA, also carried out air strikes in Derna against what it said were training camps sending militants into Egypt to carry out attacks.
The LNA says its rivals in Derna are linked to al Qaeda. Islamic State established a presence in Derna in 2014, but was pushed out by the DMSC.
Haftar is aligned with a parliament and government that moved to eastern Libya following fighting in Tripoli in 2014. He opposes an internationally recognised government based in the capital.
Haftar is trying to rid Libya of the threat from militant Islamists. Critics accuse him of branding all his opponents as “terrorists” as he seeks to expand his power.
“There is no option left for us in Derna than to crush the terrorists after they rejected all peace efforts,” Haftar said in an address to his forces this week. He urged families of DMSC fighters to pressure them to surrender to the LNA so they could get a “fair trial”.
The UN statement quoted reports of hundreds of families displaced by recent fighting in Derna and at least one child was killed.
“I call on all parties to immediately allow safe and unfettered access to Derna for humanitarian actors and urgently needed humanitarian goods,” Ribeiro was quoted as saying.