Amnesty International pressed for the release of at least six protesters abducted when armed men, allegedly allied with Libya’s UN-recognised government, fired live ammunition to disperse a demonstration in the capital.
The incident took place on Sunday when protesters rallied in Tripoli and elsewhere in western Libya against deteriorating economic conditions and corruption.
The rights group said armed men in military camouflage opened fire on the crowd using heavy weapons, including Kalashnikov rifles and truck-mounted machine guns.
The interior ministry accused “outlawed infiltrators” of firing at the protesters and said an investigation had been opened.
Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, criticised the Government of National Accord (GNA) for not reining in abusive, unaccountable militias and armed groups” and instead “relying on them for security, law enforcement and fighting its rivals”.
“The GNA has the responsibility to uphold the right to peaceful protest, protect protesters from those seeking to silence them with live ammunition and address the underlying issues that have led people to come out onto the streets,” said Eltahawy in a statement.
The organisation urged an immediate release of those abducted and called for an independent investigation, as did the UN mission in Libya. It said the protests were motivated by frustrations about sustained poor living conditions, shortages of electricity and water and a lack of services throughout the country.
The London-based group said on Wednesday that in addition to the six individuals who had been abducted, several protesters were wounded in the shooting, which happened in an area that is under the control of the Nawasi armed group that nominally operates under the UN-recognised government in Tripoli.
Amnesty, citing eyewitness accounts and its Nawasi contacts, said there were “strong indications that this militia was behind the attack” on the protesters.
The demonstrations continued on Wednesday for the fourth day in a row. Footage circulated online showed demonstrators marching and chanting slogans against the UN-recognised government.
Militiamen also opened fire at protesters in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square on Wednesday, which was the scene of Sunday’s attack, according to a protester who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. He said dozens of protesters were detained and their whereabouts were unknown.
Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga acknowledged that a Tripoli-allied militia fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters. He said in a statement early Thursday the militias, which it did not name, abducted some of the protesters who were forcefully disappeared.
Meanwhile, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said in televised comments the protesters “did not obtain necessary permits” for the rally. In a meeting with military and security officials Wednesday, he described the demonstrations as “riots”, according to a statement from his office.
He also announced a round-the-clock curfew lasting four days to fight the coronavirus, a move protesters say is meant to stop their continued rallies. The protesters defied al-Sarraj’s decision and took to the streets after his announcement, before being dispersed by militias.
Libya has seen a surge in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, with most of the cases in the country’s west. So far, authorities have reported more than 11,800 cases, including 210 deaths, though the actual numbers are thought to be far higher, in part due to limited testing.