Shells kill seven in Tripoli neighborhood as Haftar's two-week siege rages

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Shells slammed into a densely-populated district of Tripoli overnight, piling misery on civilians from a two-week assault by commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces to take Libya’s capital from an internationally-backed government.

About 10 GRAD rockets hit the southern residential area of Abu Salim just before midnight on Tuesday, witnesses and authorities said, killing at least seven people, mainly women, and wounding 17. Some of them lost limbs.

Both sides blamed each other for the attack, the most intense yet on a residential area. Abu Salim is near a main point of entry into the city of about 2.5 million people.

Retired public servant Hadia al-Hariri was sleeping next to his wife when a shell hit the dining room of their two-storey house in Abu Salim, wounding her and their three-year-old son in the head. He rushed his other five children to a relative.

“We’ve heard gunfire every night, but now I’m really afraid,” Hariri said as neighbors consoled him in a narrow street where remains of a GRAD could be seen by his front door.

“This war can go on for months...I don’t know what to do next,” he said, clearing debris from burned shelves and shattered window glasses in the dining room with a gaping hole in the front wall.

Haftar and his eastern Libyan forces have cast their advance as part of a campaign to restore order and defeat jihadists in nation gripped by anarchy since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

But the internationally-recognized Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj - which has kept him at bay in the southern suburbs - views the 75-year-old general as a dangerous would-be dictator in the Gaffafi mould.

The United Nations says thousands of civilians are trapped in southern districts of Tripoli due to the fighting. Rescuers and aid workers are struggling to reach them and electricity, water supplies and telecommunications have been badly disrupted.

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Nearly 20,000 people have fled homes, some seeking shelter elsewhere in Tripoli but most heading out. At least 14 civilians have been killed - along with scores of fighters - and about 36 wounded during the offensive, according to U.N. tallies issued prior to Tuesday night’s barrages.

U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame, who lives in Tripoli and has been pushing a peace plan, condemned the shelling.

“Killing innocent people is a blatant violation of international laws,” Salame said in a tweet.

Abu Salim lies about 8 km (5 miles) from the city center, behind the front line of pro-Serraj forces blocking Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) fighters to their south.

It is home to more than 100,000 people and was once famous for hosting a notorious prison under Gaddafi.

The area was a battleground during the rebellion against Gaddafi in 2011 and again during battles for Tripoli in 2014 and 2017, given its strategic location next to a highway leading to an old airport that is the gateway to Tripoli from the south.

Younes Blis lives in an apartment building on the airport road, where a Grad landed nearby destroying several cars. He fears further destruction given Haftar has amassed thousands of troops in the biggest mobilization since 2011.

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“I lost track of why we are fighting,” Blis said, shrugging.

On the other side of the road, four women died when three rockets hit buildings sandwiched between narrow streets.

“They didn’t stand a chance,” said Essam Taha, a neighbor. “We are not safe here but we can’t leave. We have 150 families in the area but who has space for so many?”

International powers are aghast at the flare-up in Libya, which has scuppered a United Nations’ peace plan, threatens to disrupt oil supplies from the OPEC nation, and may unleash a new wave of illegal migration across the Mediterranean to Europe.

But no common position has emerged given different sympathies toward the factions round the Gulf and Europe.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli, Alessia Pe and Crispian Balmer in Milan, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Angus MacSwan