UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Seven U.N. agencies called on Wednesday for a cease-fire in Libya to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus, saying the international community “must not turn a blind eye to the conflict” in the North African nation where 64 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed.
In a joint statement, the heads of the agencies said the confirmed cases include three deaths and have been reported in different parts of Libya, showing that “the risk of further escalation of the outbreak is very high.”
They said the conflict is having a “catastrophic effect on civilians, including migrants and refugees, across the country” and backed U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global cease-fire to tackle the pandemic, which is especially needed now in Libya.
The agencies asked donors to “continue to show their generosity and stand by the people of Libya in their quest for peace and in this moment of great need.”
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 countries.
In April 2019, eastern-based forces under military commander Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive trying to capture the capital, Tripoli, and fighting between forces loyal to Hifter and the U.N.-recognized government based in Tripoli have recently intensified.
The agencies said the situation for many migrants and refugees “is especially alarming,” with more than 3,200 people intercepted at sea since January having been returned to Libya. The United Nations has repeatedly said the country is not safe and they should not be returned to detention.
“Many end up in one of the 11 official detention centers,” they agency heads said. “Others are taken to facilities or unofficial detention centers to which the humanitarian community does not have access.”
The agencies said the U.N. has verified 113 cases of “grave violations” in Libya over the past year, including the killing and wounding of children and attacks on schools and health facilities. Since January, they said, “at least 15 attacks have damaged health facilities and ambulances and injured health care workers.”
Latest assessments found that as a result of the spread of the coronavirus, most cities in Libya "are facing shortages of basic food items coupled with an increase in prices,” the agencies said. They urged continued support for food availability, saying this is essential “so that this health crisis does not worsen by becoming a food crisis.”
The agencies also urged protection for vital water supplies, which have been deliberately targeted or indiscriminately attacked. They noted water is crucial for basic virus prevention measures including hand washing.
They also said humanitarian groups reported 851 incidents in which their personnel and aid items were constrained from entering Libya or moving within the country.
The signatories of the statement were U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, U.N. refugee chief Filippo Grandi, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Natalia Kanem, World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley, and International Organization for Migration Director-General António Vitorino.