Special Report

Drones add new scale to Libya’s battle for Tripoli

Un combattant libyen de la milice de Misrata, sur le front de Aïn Zara, dans la banlieue de Tripoli.
Un combattant libyen de la milice de Misrata, sur le front de Aïn Zara, dans la banlieue de Tripoli. Capture d'écran France 24

Despite a UN arms embargo on Libya, a FRANCE 24 team in Tripoli found fighters on edge, listening for the hum of unmanned drones amid growing signs of foreign-supplied arms being used in the battle for the Libyan capital.


Driving through the deserted neighbourhood of Ain Zara, a town around 10 kilometres south of Tripoli’s city centre, militia fighters race to the frontline of the fight for Tripoli.

Since strongman Khalifa Haftar launched a war to seize the capital on April 4, the fighting has reached an impasse, with both sides drawing support from regional backers, turning the Libyan battlefield into a proxy war on Europe’s doorstep.

A FRANCE 24 team embedded with a militia from the western city of Misrata fighting Haftar’s forces found fighters on edge, listening for a familiar sound from the skies.

“That’s a drone, which comes from the Emirates [United Arab Emirates] or Saudi Arabia,” said a fighter stationed on the roof of a house turned into a frontline position in the close-range urban battle for Tripoli.

Despite a UN arms embargo, a UN panel of experts found foreign interference in Libya was “even more blatant” than before, including the possible use of foreign mercenaries and operators of foreign supplied drones, according to news reports.

While the UN is due to publish its report before the end of the year, its findings have been viewed by a number of news media.

The UN estimates that during the past six months, the two sides have conducted more than 900 drone missions, according to the New York Times.

“It’s a very extensive feature of the battle for Tripoli since around the summer. That’s when reports started coming in of large imports of drones being used by both sides from other countries. It’s basically a new scale in this proxy war, which seems to be going on in Libya at the moment,” said FRANCE 24’s Catherine Norris-Trent, back from a reporting mission in Libya.

Drones provide cover for enemy advance

In the dirt and rubble-strewn lanes of Ain Zara, fighters make their way through holes in the walls to avoid Haftar’s snipers positions a few hundred metres away.

Small groups of Misrata militia fighters take cover as they man their own sniper positions around the clock. A fighter points to a destroyed structure on the roof: "You see that explosion? It was a strike by a Kornet missile," he says, referring to a Russian anti-tank guided missile.

Militias opposed to Haftar say his forces in recent months have received supplies of ammunition from Russia, including Sukhoi jets and sophisticated sniper bullets that do not exit the body, a New York Times report found.

Suddenly, a low, humming noise fills the air space. “Right now, they’re warning us about enemy drones. The enemy is moving, we have to deal with that,” explains a fighter. With unmanned drones providing cover for an enemy advance, the fighting picks up as incoming fire from new positions intensifies.

“Go, go, go, go, go!” command fighters in English, urging the FRANCE 24 team to pull back as the long drawn-out battle for Tripoli reaches another pitch, with no decisive victory for either side.

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