By Ayman al-Warfalli
BENGHAZI, Dec 10 – Just 10 people left a besieged neighbourhood in the east Libyan city of Benghazi on Saturday after forces surrounding the area said they would grant safe passage to trapped civilians, security and Red Crescent officials said.
The eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) has been besieging the district of Ganfouda for months as it tries to take full control of Benghazi following a military campaign against Islamists and other opponents lasting more than two years.
The fate of families cornered by the fighting has become a major point of contention, with the LNA saying noncombatants are able to leave safely but opponents accusing it of not providing adequate guarantees.
Human rights groups estimate that more than 100 families as well as an unknown number of foreign workers have been trapped for months without access to fresh food by the LNA siege. They also say the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), the LNA’s main opponent, is detaining prisoners in the area.
Both sides have been accused of human rights abuses in the conflict.
The LNA announced a six-hour ceasefire on Saturday to allow for families to leave. But only seven women and children from two Libyan families, and three Bangladeshi workers, left during the assigned pause in fighting, according to the commander of a local LNA brigade, Wahid al-Zawi, and Red Crescent spokesman Toufik al-Shwaihdi.
Shwaihdi said the families had been evacuated by the brigade, received by the Red Crescent, and then handed over to relatives.
The United Nations has repeatedly called for civilians to be allowed to leave Ganfouda, and Libya’s envoy to the United Nations, Martin Kobler, said late on Saturday he was “deeply worried” about their continued presence in the district after the “unilateral” LNA ceasefire.
“Reports of shells being fired and civilians being prevented from leaving are extremely concerning,” he said in a statement.
More than five years after long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi was swept from power in an uprising, Libya remains mired in conflict with competing armed factions vying for power.
The LNA is led by Khalifa Haftar, who has become a figurehead for factions in eastern Libya. They have opposed a half-formed, U.N.-backed government in the capital, Tripoli.
The LNA has made a series of hard-won advances in Benghazi this year, but has been unable to take full control of the city and still faces frequent attacks on its forces.