The military commander at the centre of clashes between rival militias in the Libyan capital has been freed, a day after his detention triggered the worst violence Tripoli has seen this year.
Mahmoud Hamza, the commander of the 444 Brigade, was released on Tuesday by the Special Deterrence Force, according to sources in each faction who spoke to the Reuters news agency.
However, fighting continued in the immediate aftermath of Hamza’s release, residents in the city said.
Civilians have been trapped in their homes and unable to escape the violence, the country’s health ministry has said.
The death toll from the clashes remains unclear, but a medical unit linked to the Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that it had recovered three bodies from Furnaj, Ain Zara and Tarik Shok districts.
The Health Ministry appealed to citizens to donate blood to help casualties. Usama Ali, a spokesperson for the Red Crescent ambulance service, said that at least 19 people had been injured and more than 20 families evacuated from areas affected by the fighting so far.
Fighting broke out between the 444 Brigade and the Special Deterrence Force late Monday evening, according to local media, after Hamza was allegedly detained by the Special Deterrence Force at an airport in Tripoli earlier Monday, media reported.
The ministry urged the warring sides to allow ambulance and emergency teams to enter the affected areas, primarily in the south of the city, and for blood to be sent to nearby hospitals.
Dark smoke hung over parts of Tripoli early on Tuesday as residents and local media reported sounds of heavy weapons and fighting in different parts of the capital.
Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina, reporting from Tripoli, said people in the capital are “extremely angry” at the forces responsible for plunging the city into more violence.
“There are ongoing clashes,” Traina said. “We can hear sporadic gunfire every 10-15 minutes.”
The Libyan Red Crescent said it has been able to evacuate “dozens of families” from the site of the clashes, he added.
“People are suffering due to the lack of accountability towards powerful armed groups here in Tripoli,” Traina said. “Both of these groups … are under the umbrella of the security apparatus. They are funded by the Libyan government.”
Opsgroup, an organisation for the aviation industry, said late Monday that a large number of aircraft departed the capital due to the clashes. Inbound flights were diverting to the nearby city of Misrata, it said.
The escalation follows months of relative peace after nearly a decade of civil war in Libya, where two rival sets of authorities are locked in a political stalemate. Long-standing divisions have sparked several incidents of violence in Tripoli in recent years, although most have been over in a matter of hours.
‘Critical supply lines’
Anas El Gomati, director of the Sadeq Institute, a think-tank focusing on Libya, said clashes have reemerged because Hamza has “an enormous standing amongst his brigade, the 444”.
“Also, I think he blurs the lines between the political factions that have been largely at peace for the last year in Tripoli and their allegiances towards the government of national unity as it stands … And those that favour a unity government with renegade General Khalifa Haftar,” El Gomati told Al Jazeera.
“Those that are on the ground and know Hamza quite well would suggest that he is in the anti-Haftar faction,” El Gomati said.
Haftar is a renegade general based in Libya’s east. Backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt, he attempted with his self-styled army to overtake Tripoli in 2020 and has been behind much of the fighting that previously erupted.
His efforts collapsed, leading to a ceasefire that has halted most major warfare. Turkey, which backed the Tripoli government, has maintained a military presence in Libya.
However, there has been little progress towards a lasting political solution to the conflict, and on the ground armed factions that have gained official status and financing continue to wield power.
“Hamza has been quite formidable” in the negotiations with rival military forces, El Gomati said. “He has been a thorn in the negotiations against Haftar,” he added.
“If we look where the fighting has extended to over the last 24 hours, they’re … also critical supply lines.”
Meanwhile, in a statement Tuesday, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya said it was following with concern “the security incidents and developments” that began Monday. It called for an immediate end to the ongoing armed clashes.
Both of Libya’s competing authorities also condemned the fighting in separate statements Tuesday. The House of Representatives, which is situated in the eastern city of Benghazi, said its rival Tripoli-based government was accountable for the violence.
The embassies of the United States and the United Kingdom in Libya both issued online statements expressing their concerns about the escalating violence around Tripoli. The US urges “immediate de-escalation in order to sustain recent Libyan gains toward stability and elections,” the US Embassy said.