VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Sunday urged political and military leaders in Libya to end their hostilities and called on the international community to take “to heart” the plight of migrants trapped in the lawless nation.
During his weekly blessing overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the pontiff called for “an end to the violence” and a path toward “peace, stability and unity’’ in the country.
He said thousands of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people are “more vulnerable to forms of exploitation and violence.”
“There is cruelty,” the pope said, departing from prepared remarks. “We all have responsibility. No one can feel exempt.”
The Pope’s comments came as forces allied with a U.N.-supported government in the capital Tripoli are preparing to launch an attack on rival forces led by military commander Khalifa Hifter in the strategic coastal city of Sirte. If successful, it could help them seize key oil fields and facilities in Libya’s south.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011 when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign governments.
Hifter's forces launched an offensive on Tripoli in April 2019. The chaos in the oil-rich country has steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervened, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
The Tripoli-based forces, backed by Turkey, gained the upper hand earlier this month after retaking the capital’s airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli. That forced Hifter’s fighters to withdraw — defeats that commanders painted as a tactical measure to give the U.N.-backed peace process a chance.
After Gadhafi's fall and killing, Libya also emerged as a major transit point for African and Arab migrants fleeing war and poverty to Europe.
Most migrants make the perilous journey in ill-equipped and unsafe rubber boats. The International Organization for Migration said its estimated death toll among migrants who tried to cross the Mediterranean in March passed the “grim milestone” of 20,000 since 2014.
On Saturday, the U.N. migration agency said a dozen people were missing and feared drowned after a boat carrying around three dozen migrants bound for Europe capsized in the Mediterranean Sea off the coastal town of Zawiya, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) west of Tripoli.
Separately, Tripoli-based prosecutors ordered Sunday the arrested of at least 14 Hifter-linked individuals for their alleged connections to mass graves that were discovered in the western town Tarhouna, which was captured from Hifter's forces earlier this month.
The prosecutors said in a statement that a forensic team had been formed to identify the victims and determine when and how they died.
The mass graves have raised fears about the extent of human rights violations in territories controlled by Hifter’s forces, given the difficulties of documentation in an active war zone. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for a transparent investigation. Tarhouna served as a main stronghold for Hifter's forces in their 14-month campaign to capture Tripoli.