Armed group seeks legitimacy with Tripoli migrant deal

File photo shows migrants standing in line as they wait to be transferred to Spanish frigate Canarias after being rescued by “Save the Children” NGO crew in the Mediterranean sea off Libya coast. (Reuters)
Updated 21 September 2017

Armed group seeks legitimacy with Tripoli migrant deal

ROME/TUNIS: A powerful armed group, known for smuggling people from Libya, is seeking legitimacy and state security jobs from the Tripoli government in exchange for stopping migrant boats from leaving the coast of Sabratha for Italy, a senior group member said.
The group, the Anas Al-Dabbashi brigade, struck a deal with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) this summer to clamp down on trafficking, the senior brigade member, who gave his name as Mohamed, told Reuters.
The need for the GNA to strike such a deal would illustrate the power of armed groups in western Libya, which continue to hold the real influence locally as they have since a 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Qaddafi.
The revelation would also throw light on the fragility of the sharp recent reduction in migrant arrivals from Italy, which took over from the Aegean route as the main focus of European concerns in the crisis.
The GNA did not respond to requests for comment.
Local sources, who declined to be named, said there had been at least one meeting between government officials and Ahmed Al-Dabbashi, identified as one of the main “facilitators” of human smuggling in Libya in a UN report earlier this year.
Mohamed said there had been a number of such meetings, and that the brigade was also offered the possibility of an amnesty for past smuggling activity.
To show it could uphold the deal with Tripoli, the several-hundred-strong brigade has cracked down on departures with the help of the coast guard leading to an 80 percent fall in the arrival of rescued migrants in Italy last month, Mohamed said.
With a national election looming in the first half of next year, the government in Rome, which welcomed the sudden decline shown in official data, is under pressure to show it can stop, or at least slow, migration from the oil-producing desert state.
Libya remains split between rival political camps and armed alliances. The GNA has struggled to impose its authority on Tripoli and other parts of western Libya, and has been rejected by factions that control the east of the country.
Like normal police
Mohamed said the GNA, under pressure from Italy to halt the migrant flows, had exerted pressure on the Dabbashi brigade. The GNA “said that they would gather all the cities west of Tripoli against us, and they would come and fight us.”
“On the other hand, they have offered to let us join the police, and let us join the military,” Mohamed said. “If this plan goes forward and the (Tripoli) government was telling the truth... in six months time everybody in this battalion will be like normal police.”
A second source in Sabratha spoke to Ahmed Al-Dabbashi, who confirmed that Mohamed was a member of the brigade. It is the first time a brigade member has spoken at length about why the group suddenly shifted from smuggling to policing, a change first reported by Reuters last month.
Some international media reported that Dabbashi had received five million euros directly from Italy’s secret services to stop the migrant boats, but Mohamed denied this. Italy has also denied any direct payments to armed groups.
The fragility of the security situation in Sabratha was underscored by territorial clashes that erupted there over the weekend, with Dabbashi’s group battling cross-town rivals in some of the heaviest fighting the city has seen in recent years.
Explosions could be heard as far away as the port of Zawiya, 22 km away.
Both sides in the fighting claim to have the backing of the Tripoli government, and both battled together to drive Daesh out of the area last year.
‘Little bit smart’
With Italy and the EU offering millions of euros to local authorities in Libya who can put a cap on trafficking, armed groups have an interest in proving that they are the only ones who can police the territory.
“This smuggling thing — everybody knows that Libya is not going to be like this forever,” Mohamed said. “If you are just a little bit smart, you will go with the government.”
As a result of the policing by Dabbashi and coast guard interceptions, arrivals of rescued migrants in Italy fell 50 percent in July from a year earlier, and declined more than 80 percent in August — two months that had been peak periods during the previous three years.
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 show.
To rein in smuggling, Italy has spearheaded efforts to bolster the Libyan coast guard, and it is dealing directly with local governments to try to offer incentives for them to shut it down, including with Sabratha’s Mayor Hussein Al-Thwadi.
Forgiveness on table
Al-Thwadi sought support directly from Italy, meeting the ambassador earlier this month and Interior Minister Marco Minniti in July.
The Dabbashi brigade, which also guards an oil and gas facility west of Sabratha run jointly by Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Italian firm Eni, denied any direct contacts with Italy. It is allied to Brigade 48, a group of some 300 soldiers aligned with the GNA.
“We only have deals with the (Tripoli) government,” Mohamed said. “They said they might forgive all of what we have done in the past,” he added, referring to people smuggling.
But it is unclear if Tripoli can deliver on its promises to integrate Dabbashi’s men, or whether any group can hold the line against forces who want to keep smuggling.
On Saturday, Libyan coast guard officials said they had turned back more than 1,000 migrants traveling in at least eight boats. On the same day, the Dabbashi brigade intercepted about 3,000 more, said Mohamed. More than 1,500 were rescued at sea and brought to Italy.
“A lot of people are pressuring us to stop this,” Mohamed said of Dabbashi’s crackdown on departing migrant boats. “They want to start (human trafficking) again.”

Syrian army drops barrel bombs in southwest — rights monitor

Updated 24 min 22 sec ago

Syrian army drops barrel bombs in southwest — rights monitor

  • President Bashar Assad has sworn to recapture the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the army began ramping up an assault there this week
  • The Syrian government has denied using barrel bombs, containers filled with explosive material that are dropped from helicopters and which cannot be accurately aimed

BEIRUT: A war monitor reported Syrian military helicopters dropped barrel bombs on rebel-held areas of the southwest on Friday for the first time in a year, escalating an assault that has so far included artillery but only limited use of air power.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Syrian government helicopters had dropped more than 12 barrel bombs on rebel-held territory northeast of Daraa, causing damage but no deaths.

President Bashar Assad has sworn to recapture the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the army began ramping up an assault there this week.

The attack has been concentrated on the towns of Al-Harak and Busra Al-Harir, which would bisect a finger of rebel ground jutting northwards into land held by the Syrian government.

A big offensive risks a wider escalation, as the United States has warned Damascus it will respond to breaches of a “de-escalation” brokered by Washington and Assad’s Russian allies last year to contain the war in the southwest.

The region is also of strategic concern to Israel, which has struck Iran-backed militia allied to the army.

Those militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have played an important role in Assad’s seven-year war against the rebels, including since Russia entered the conflict in 2015.

The Russian ambassador to Lebanon was quoted on Friday in the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar as saying the Syrian military was recovering the southwest with help from Moscow.

“We say that the Syrian army now, with support from Russian forces, is recovering its land in the south and restoring the authority of the Syrian state,” it quoted him as saying in an interview.

“Israel has no justification to carry out any action that obstructs the fight against terrorism,” he added.

The Syrian government has denied using barrel bombs, containers filled with explosive material that are dropped from helicopters and which cannot be accurately aimed. However, United Nations investigators have extensively documented its use of them during the conflict.