A deal between Italy and two major militias
in the Libyan city of Sabratha to stop migration to Europe has sparked deadly clashes in the city as rival armed groups seek to maintain their influence.
Over the summer Italy began funnelling money and logistical support to the Anas al-Dabbashi militia, better known as al-Ammu’s militia, and Brigade 48 through a deal made with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez al-Serraj.
The deal led to a dramatic drop in migration from Sabratha, a city on the western side of Libya’s Mediterranean coast that used to be the main launching point for migrant boats.
The Anas al-Dabbashi brigade, known previously for smuggling migrants to Europe, said last month it was seeking legitimacy
from the Tripoli government in exchange for preventing migrant boats from leaving the country.
But many in Libya decried the deal, fearing that salaries and supplies provided to the militias would enrich them and make them more powerful, throwing off the balance of power
in Sabratha and triggering a backlash from rival armed groups.
Dozens of people have been killed in clashes between rival militias in the city over the past two weeks after the Anas al-Dabbashi brigade intercepted a group of human traffickers off shore.
The traffickers came from the al-Wadi district, in eastern Sabratha. The following day, a militia force allied with the al-Wadi group shot and killed a member of the Dabbashi militia.
At least 93 people have been killed in the ensuing fighting, with the city carved up by different militias vying for control
, according to Essam Karrar, the head of Sabratha Civil Society Federation.
“This is a war that started between human traffickers, then snowballed into an ideological and political one,” said al-Tahar al-Gharabili, head of the Sabratha Military Council, which answers to Serraj’s government.
Fighting in Sabratha has expanded to bring in outside factions
, including strongman Khalifa Haftar who sees an opportunity to obtain a foothold in the west of the country from his territory in the east.
Thousands of families have fled Sabratha, according to the Red Crescent and local officials, while the city’s ancient ruins of a 1,800-year-old Roman city have been damaged by gunfire.
Over the past few days fighting in Sabratha has been described as more intense than during the 2011 civil war.
A Dabbashi militia spokesman Bashir Ibrahim said the deal with Italy was a trigger for the violence. “Certainly, this is among the reasons,” he said. “It’s about power.”
The government in Rome has a national election looming in the first half of next year and is under pressure to show it can stop migrant flows from Libya.
Overall, there have been more than 100,000 arrivals in Italy this year, a decline of more than 20 percent compared to 2016, official Italian data shows.