The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) expressed its “horror” at the news at least eight mass graves discovered in an area taken over last week by the country’s internationally recognized government by the forces of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.
According to the Tripoli office National Accord Government (GNA), most of the graves were found in Tarhuna, Haftar’s last stronghold in western Libya. The city was used by its forces as a launching pad during an unfortunate 14-month offensive to capture the capital of the GNA.
“UNSMIL notes with horror the discovery of at least eight mass graves in recent days, most of them in Tarhuna,” the UN mission wrote on Twitter. “International law requires that the authorities conduct prompt, effective and transparent investigations into all suspected cases of illegal death.”
Malik Traina of Al Jazeera reported from Misrata that the GNA, which seized Tarhuna on June 5, said it was “capable of recovering … more than a hundred bodies from these mass graves.”
1/3 UNSMIL notes with horror the discovery of at least eight mass graves in recent days, most of them in Tarhuna. International law requires that the authorities conduct prompt, effective and transparent investigations into all suspected cases of illegal death. pic.twitter.com/cQY7dTNhzI
– UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) June 11, 2020
The GNA said the remains were those of imprisoned government soldiers. They also reported civilians among the dead, said Traina.
“These mass graves are another indication of the brutality of the Libyan conflict and the death toll of the inhabitants of the region,” he added.
The GNA’s justice ministry launched a committee to investigate the graves on Thursday, the UN mission said.
UNSMIL called on the members of the committee “to quickly undertake the work aimed at securing the mass graves, identifying the victims, establishing the causes of death and returning the bodies to their relatives”.
In March, UNSMIL said it had received reports of hundreds of enforced disappearances, torture, killings and displacement of entire families in Tarhuna by forces loyal to Haftar.
The victims included “individuals, state officials, captured fighters and civil society activists,” the mission said.
UNSMIL said it also verified numerous summary executions at Tarhuna prison on September 13.
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Toby Cadman, an international human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera that based on the reported conditions of the dead, including reports that some may have their hands tied behind their backs, the newly discovered graves appeared to be evidence of war crimes.
“Of course, they will have to be investigated to identify the cause of death,” he noted.
Human Rights Watch Libya lead researcher Hanan Salah said that the GNA should invite neutral international forensic experts to help preserve possible evidence of the crimes and identify the remains.
“We urge the GNA to keep its promise to investigate the apparent mass graves in a prompt and transparent manner,” she said.
Libya, a major oil producer, has been in turmoil since 2011 when longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a NATO-backed uprising.
It is now divided between two rival administrations: the GNA in Tripoli and the East-based House of Representatives allied with Haftar.
The GNA is supported by Turkey while the self-proclaimed Libyan national army of Haftar is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia.
In recent weeks, the GNA, with support from Turkey, has made major military gains, forcing Haftar’s forces to retreat. The GNA has since launched a military operation to take the central coastal city of Sirte and al-Jufra further south.