Gunmen claiming to be loyal to Khalifa Haftar force shutdown in Tripoli and nearby cities

Fighters from UN-backed government forces distribute food and aid in Tripoli
 Fighters from UN-backed government forces distribute food and aid to people trapped near the al-Sawani frontline in Tripoli. Photograph: Amru Salahuddien/Xinhua/Barcroft Media

Water supplies to the Libyan capital and surrounding cities have been cut off after an armed group stormed a control room, leaving millions of people without water as summer temperatures begin to climb.

The gunmen arrived on Sunday at the control room in Jafararun by a consortium known as the Great Man-Made River project, which transports water via a vast underground network of pipes from the Sahara into Tripoli, a city of more than 2 million people, and other coastal areas. The group forced staff to shut down the water pipes connected to underground wells.

The group claimed to be supporters of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA). Haftar’s force dominates the east and south of Libya and has been trying to take the capital from the UN-backed government of national accord (GNA).Advertisement

The link with Haftar has been disputed, with some claiming the armed group is operating independently and the GNA is making a link to undermine support for the controversial general.

Haftar’s forces have been besieging Tripoli since 4 April with tacit support from countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but it is generally accepted that the LNA’s plans for a quick victory and the defeat of the GNA have been thwarted.

The agency that oversees the water project, first commissioned by the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, insisted it had never taken sides in the current civil strife but said water supplies should never be used to pursue any interest. “Water is God’s gift to all and should not be used to dictate or bargain under any conditions at all,” the authority said.

As a result of the attack water will not just be cut to Tripoli, but also to Gharyan and some other western mountain cities. It is not known how long it will take to restore supplies, but the incident underlines the vulnerability of Libya’s civil fabric to a prolonged war. The authority previously warned it was finding it difficult to repair leaks due to the fighting. Libya periodically suffers from water outages.

The GNA accused the armed group in coordination with Haftar’s forces of seeking to “lock the water from the capital to lower the morale of its inhabitants”.

It is likely that Haftar will disown the action, but the episode, however quickly it is resolved, may rebound badly on the warlord as he seeks to persuade the international community he can be the upholder of security against the criminal militias who have afflicted the weak GNA government in Tripoli. It will also add to the sense that the siege is deepening a general lawlessness in Libya that others, including Islamic State, are beginning to exploit. There have been a number of Isis hit-and-run attacks in the past month, mainly in the south of the country.

The east and west of Libya have been divided for much of the time since Gaddafi was ousted with the help of Nato-backed forces in 2011.


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