Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold

Men walk past the ruins of a building that was destroyed during clashes between Libyan forces and Daesh in Sirte, Libya. (Reuters)
Updated 10 November 2017
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Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold

SIRTE, Libya: Nearly a year after Daesh was driven from its Libyan stronghold Sirte, residents surveying their wrecked homes feel neglected and vulnerable, still afraid of the militant threat that has waned but not vanished.
Though security in the Mediterranean coastal city has improved, residents remain wary of terrorists in the desert to the south who have stepped up their activity in recent months, setting up checkpoints and carrying out occasional attacks.
In a country where fighting between rival forces frequently flares, Sirte is particularly exposed. It sits in the center of Libya’s coastline on the dividing line between loose alliances aligned with rival governments in Tripoli and the east.
“If the situation continues like this then Daesh will come back, no doubt. There was a reason why they came. People were angry, felt sidelined,” said Ali Miftah, a civil servant and father of five.
“Now we don’t get any support from the government. Look at these ruins. We lost everything.”
Last month, Daesh gunmen staged a suicide attack in Misrata, the coastal city about 230 km to the northwest that led the campaign last year to expel the militants from Sirte.
Daesh also has sleeper cells in other cities along Libya’s western coast, security officials say, and there is concern foreign fighters seeking sanctuary after defeats in Syria and Iraq could once again exploit the country’s security vacuum and link up with Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the desert south.
Divisions among Libya’s many armed factions and uncertainty over how long the forces from Misrata that drove Daesh out will remain in Sirte are compounding residents’ worries.

Airstrikes
In parts of the city, life is slowly returning to normal, though Daesh’s black logos are still visible on some shops and inhabitants struggle with cash shortages and failing public services, as they do elsewhere in Libya.
But in areas that saw the heaviest fighting, families see little hope of rebuilding their homes.
Sirte, the home city of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, was pounded by nearly 500 US airstrikes between August and December last year.
In El-Manar and Giza Bahriya, once among Sirte’s best neighborhoods, houses looking onto the crystal blue Mediterranean are now crumpled piles of twisted metal and concrete, doors blasted from their metal frames.
A damaged primary school said to have once been attended by Qaddafi lies abandoned.
Residents say skeletons among the rubble have been left to be tested to see if they belong to Daesh fighters, or their captives. They are also scared to search their ruined homes because of the unexploded ordnance in the wreckage.
Local forces man checkpoints on the outskirts of Sirte and carry out patrols to the south. But they say they lack the vehicles and weapons to pursue the jihadists, who have retreated into mobile desert camps.
Instead, they rely on the US airstrikes that have killed dozens of suspected militants this year.
“We contain the threat but we cannot chase them in their camps because we lack the right equipment like four-wheel cars needed to drive in the desert,” said Taher Hadeed, an official with the forces securing Sirte.
“It won’t be possible for Daesh to take back the city, but there is a risk of attacks.”
The forces that led the campaign against Daesh in Sirte last year are nominally loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli to the west — and Sirte now represents the eastern limit of their control.
Beyond, forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army control oil terminals they seized during the campaign. But for now, the two sides do not coordinate, said Mohamed Al-Ghasri, a military spokesman from Misrata.
Residents and officials in Sirte say the threat cannot be dealt with without proper support from the state and professional security forces.
“They are suffering from a lack of services and we don’t see any real efforts or results on the ground at any level,” said Siddeeq Ismaiel, a municipal official.
An estimated 2,500-3,000 homes need to be built so families forced to live in other parts of Sirte or Misrata can return.
“This will never end if there is no government,” said Hamza Ali, a 34-year-old university employee, standing near his brother’s ruined house.
“It will stop maybe for two, three, four, five, six months, then you will hear an explosion somewhere if there is no official security, police.”


From Beirut to Babila, Syrian refugee family returns home

Syrian child Luay drinks milk before boarding a bus with his family on Sept. 17, as they return to Syria after living as refugees in Lebanon for years. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2018
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From Beirut to Babila, Syrian refugee family returns home

  • Since Syria’s conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries and another 6 million are internally displaced
  • Around 6,000 refugees have gone back to Syria in these coordinated returns since April, according to an AFP tally

BEIRUT: Syrian toddler Luay happily explores his grandfather’s modest house near Damascus for the first time. After years as refugees in Lebanon, the three-year-old and his family have returned to their homeland. They are among several thousand Syrians who have made an emotional journey home from Lebanon, where they sought safety from the war that has ravaged their native country since 2011. Worn down by tough economic conditions in Lebanon and seeing regime victories back home as bringing stability, they have taken advantage of return trips coordinated by Lebanese and Syrian authorities.
Last month Luay’s father Rawad Kurdi, 30, his mother, and his baby sister Luliya decided to make the trip themselves. As the sun was rising, they lined up with dozens of other refugees to board buses that would whisk them out of Beirut. With them were more than a dozen suitcases and boxes — everything they could carry from their five years in Lebanon. During a nine-hour wait for the buses to move, Rawad was anxious to end his family’s long exile. “This return is definitive. I will never leave Syria again,” he told AFP.
In 2012, Rawad and his 35 relatives were forced to flee their hometown of Babila southeast of Damascus after fighting broke out between rebels and government forces.
They came to Lebanon. Three years later, some of the elderly family members including Rawad’s father Ahmad returned to Syria, and more have hit the road home since.
Rawad’s return to Babila meant Ahmad, now 70, could finally meet the two grandchildren born in Lebanon after he left. A content look on his face, Ahmad sits with one-year-old Luliya in his lap, as Luay scrambles over the couch in the dimly lit living room. “My home is not worth anything without my children and grandchildren. Now, both I and my home feel alive again,” said Ahmad, his hands stained black from picking eggplants on his nearby land. Although six of his children have already returned to Syria, another three are still living as refugees in Lebanon. One day, he hopes, they can all be reunited back home. “I’d much rather live with my children and grandchildren in war, than them being safe but far away,” he said. Since Syria’s conflict erupted, more than 5 million people have sought refuge in neighboring countries and another 6 million are internally displaced.
But back-to-back military victories this year have put more than two-thirds of Syria under regime control, including Babila and other areas around the capital in the spring.
These wins prompted host countries, like Lebanon, to encourage refugees to move back home. Just under 1 million Syrians are registered as refugees in Lebanon, although the number is likely higher.
This year, Beirut and Damascus began coordinating weekly convoys taking Syrians back home, only if their names are cleared by Syrian security services.
Around 6,000 refugees have gone back to Syria in these coordinated returns since April, according to an AFP tally. Others have remained in exile, fearing Syria’s compulsory military service or stuck in too much debt to leave Lebanon. Rawad said he is exempt from the army because he is overweight.
He wanted to leave in 2015 with his father, but said he was unable to cross the border because he could not afford paying fines he had accrued for overstaying his residency in Lebanon. This September, the Lebanese authorities waived these penalties for those taking part in the coordinated returns, and Rawad decided to bring his family home.
Back in Babila, he gazes at old photos hanging on the wall. “War has changed us so much, and then came emigration, also leaving its marks on our faces and in our eyes,” said the portly tailor in a gray T-shirt and sleeveless black jacket. The fabric workshops he owned in Babila have been looted, but he remains optimistic.
“For now, the future is uncertain — but however long it takes, goodness will only come from this land,” he said. The dream of returning home also kept Rawad from seeking asylum in Europe. “As beautiful, quiet and safe as those countries were, they could never be a substitute for the one where my family, my memories and my neighbors are,” he said. He spends his days with family or wandering the streets of Babila, eager to get to know its streets and homes again. During such a stroll, his phone rings. It is his brother Ayman, who still lives in Lebanon and is hesitating to return. “There is no reason to stay in Lebanon. The war is over,” Rawad reassured him.