UN expresses 'horror' at reported mass graves' discovery in Libya

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The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has expressed "horror" at reports of at least eight mass graves being discovered in an area retaken last week by the country's internationally recognised government from renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar's forces. 

According to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), most of the graves were found in Tarhuna, Haftar's last remaining stronghold in western Libya. The city was used by his forces as a launchpad during an ill-fated 14-month offensive to seize the capital from the GNA.

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"UNSMIL notes with horror reports on the discovery of at least eight mass graves in past days, the majority of them in Tarhuna," the UN mission wrote on Twitter. "International law requires that the authorities conduct prompt, effective & transparent investigations into all alleged cases of unlawful deaths". 

Reporting from Misrata, Al Jazeera's Malik Traina said the GNA, which seized Tarhuna on June 5, reported being "able to recover ... over a hundred bodies in these mass graves".

1/3 UNSMIL notes with horror reports on the discovery of at least eight mass graves in past days, the majority of them in Tarhuna. International law requires that the authorities conduct prompt, effective & transparent investigations into all alleged cases of unlawful deaths. pic.twitter.com/cQY7dTNhzI

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) June 11, 2020

The GNA has said the remains are those of imprisoned government soldiers. They have also reported civilians among the dead, Traina said.

"These mass graves are yet another indication of the brutality of the Libyan conflict and the toll on the residents in the area," he added. 

On Thursday, the GNA's justice ministry launched a committee to investigate the graves, according to the UN mission. 

UNSMIL called on members of the committee "to promptly undertake the work aimed at securing the mass graves, identifying the victims, establishing causes of death & returning the bodies to next of kin".

Reports of atrocities

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. 

Among the victims were "private individuals, state officials, captured fighters and civil society activists", according to the mission. 

UNSMIL said it had also verified numerous summary executions at Tarhuna prison on September 13. 

Has Khalifa Haftar's campaign in Libya failed? I Inside Story

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 had their hands tied behind their backs, the newly discovered graves appeared to be evidence of war crimes.

"Of course, they will need to be an investigation to identify the cause of death," he noted.

Human Rights Watch Libya senior researcher Hanan Salah said the GNA should invite neutral international forensic experts to help preserve possible evidence of crimes and identify the remains.

"We urge the GNA to follow through with their promise to investigate apparent mass graves in a speedy and transparent manner," she said.

Libya, a major oil producer, has been mired in turmoil since 2011, when longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a NATO-backed uprising.

It is now split between two rival administrations: the GNA in Tripoli and the eastern-based House of Representatives allied with Haftar.

The GNA is backed by Turkey while Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia. 

In recent weeks, the GNA, with the support of 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.

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