TRIPOLI/GENEVA (Reuters) - Casualties from the battle for Libya’s capital mounted on Tuesday and the United Nations moved dozens of migrants to safety from a detention center in the south of the city where fighting had raged nearby.
Medical facilities reported 47 people killed and 181 wounded in recent days as eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces seek to take Tripoli from an internationally-recognized government, the World Health Organisation said.
The fatalities were mainly fighters, although they also comprised nine civilians, including two doctors, the WHO said.
In central Tripoli, while there were no signs yet of military and security vehicles or personnel on the streets, shops and cafes were closing earlier than usual in the evening and residents were apprehensive about the prospect of violence.
“War is war: I am not afraid of the Libyan National Army, but I am afraid of the destruction that will never be reconstructed,” said Mohamed Salem al-Sharwe, a taxi driver in Tripoli.
The LNA forces of Khalifa Haftar - a former general in ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s army - seized the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year before heading toward Tripoli this month.
They are fighting on the southern side of the city, where witnesses said on Monday afternoon the LNA had lost control of a former airport and withdrawn down the road.
The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal that Haftar boycotted, is seeking to repel the LNA with the help of armed groups from Misrata.
Serraj’s forces carried out an air strike on an LNA position in the suburb of Suq al-Khamis on Tuesday, a resident and an eastern military source said, without giving more details.
The renewed conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scupper U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.
Libya has become the main conduit for African migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, with many detained if their journey fails and they are sent back. Some 5,700 refugees and migrants are trapped in detention centers in conflict areas, U.N. agencies say.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said that it had relocated more than 150 refugees from the Ain Zara detention center in south Tripoli on Tuesday to a UNHCR facility in a safe zone.
There had been heavy clashes near the Ain Zara center in recent days, the agency said in a statement.
“Refugees told UNHCR that they were frightened and worried about their safety, given ongoing fighting in the vicinity, and that they were left with minimal supplies,” the statement said, adding the agency was working to ensure other detained migrants and refugees were not in harm’s way.
A U.N.-sponsored peace conference, scheduled to start on Sunday in the southwestern town of Ghadames, was postponed by envoy Ghassan Salame, who said he was working to hold the meeting “as soon as possible”.
“I would interpret Mr Salame’s statement ... as a shifting (of) dates and I think as reaffirming his commitment to hold the conference,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a ceasefire, a return to a U.N. peace plan, and a halt to Haftar’s push.
On Monday, a warplane took out Tripoli’s only functioning airport, and the number of displaced people - 3,400 at the last U.N. count - is mounting alongside the casualties.
A woman teacher shopping at a supermarket in Tripoli said she planned to leave the capital, adding: “I don’t care who wins or loses, I just want to survive with my family”.
Far south of Tripoli, the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for attacking the town of Fuqaha, where residents said three people were killed and another kidnapped. The attack indicated IS may be looking to exploit gaps left by movements of Haftar’s troops.
Fuqaha is controlled by fighters loyal to Haftar, who casts himself as a foe of Islamist extremism, though he is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gaddafi.
IS has been active in Libya in the turmoil since the Western-backed overthrow of Gaddafi eight years ago. It took control of the coastal city of Sirte in 2015 but lost it the following year to local forces backed by U.S. air strikes, and now operates in the shadows.
The Libyan state oil firm NOC met with oil operating firms to discuss security at oil fields and allow production to continue, a company statement said on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi, Tom Miles and Stepahnie Nebehay in Geneva, Ulf Laessing in Cairo and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Giles Elgood, Frances Kerry and Jan Harvey