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U.N. rights chief warns on Libyan dangers

The U.N.'s top human rights official expressed grave concern that thousands of lives were at risk in Libya's capital, where civilians have been trapped.

The U.N.'s top human rights official expressed grave concern that thousands of lives were at risk in Libya's capital, where civilians have been trapped in residential areas amid intensifying military attacks.

Michelle Bachelet, who heads the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited an urgent need to create safe humanitarian corridors so trapped civilians can exit areas with heavy fighting and blocked roads. She also added her voice to those urging an immediate cease-fire and resumption of political talks.

Forces loyal to a renegade Libyan army commander, Khalifa Haftar, have been escalating attacks on Tripoli, the capital of the United Nations-backed government, which has led to increased fighting with rival militias. The attacks in residential areas include fighting with airstrikes, artillery and rockets.

Haftar's Libyan National Army dimmed hopes for U.N.-brokered peace talks between Libyan rivals to come to agreement for new elections. Libya has been split between rival governments and militias vying for power and oil since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising deposed and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

“The escalation of attacks in residential areas, including the use of artillery, rockets and airstrikes is deeply worrying. Thousands of children, women and men’s lives are at risk,” Bachelet said, noting that while 22 civilian deaths and 74 injured civilians have been documented, the actual number is likely to be higher.

“I remind all parties to the conflict that the use of explosive weapons with indiscriminate effects in densely populated areas is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law," she said.

Some 42,000 people have been uprooted from their homes since early April because of the escalation of violence around Tripoli, according to U.N. figures. Thousands are believed to be trapped in Tripoli’s southern outskirts, and the U.N. fears the increasing air raids and heavy shelling in residential neighborhoods could lead to more civilian casualties and destroyed infrastructure.

“We cannot move because of the shelling from both sides. Our homes have been damaged. We are trying to leave the area to a safer place,” Mohammed al-Trapoulsi, a 41-year-old father of three from Abu Salim, told The Associated Press.

Aid and evacuation routes blocked

Bachelet said she also has serious concerns about the safety of 3,350 migrants and refugees that were being held in detention centers near the conflict areas. She pointed to food and water shortages, and reports that some of the detainees were "reportedly being forced to work for militias controlling their detention centers.”

“Migrants should be released from detention centers as a matter of urgency, and should have access to the same humanitarian protection as all civilians, including access to collective shelters or other safe places,” she said.

Bachelet urged the European Union and its 28 member nations to quickly provide more coordinated and humane efforts to assist Libyans desperately risking their lives on the Mediterranean Sea's migration routes.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the random shelling, roadblocks and roadside bombs in Tripoli have prevented delivery of much-needed food and blocked some evacuation efforts.

"Indiscriminate shelling and airstrikes on residential areas continues, in violation of international humanitarian law, with unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties and material damages reported," OCHA said in an update.

"For civilians trapped by frontline fighting, including urban refugees and migrants, access to food is becoming a greater challenge," it said. "In many areas, markets are closed due to fighting and civilians are unable to travel safely to purchase food."