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story.lead_photo.caption In this Sept. 21, 2018 file photo, a fighter under the UN-backed government prepares his gun during clashes in southern Tripoli, Libya. Various militias, many of which are little more than criminal gangs, are mobilizing to fight over the capital, Tripoli after forces led by self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, launched a surprise offensive to retake Tripoli on April 5, 2019, from the transitional government supported by U.N. and Western nations led by Fayez Sarraj. Hifter's opponents view him as an aspiring dictator. (AP Photo/Mohamed Ben Khalifa, File)

CAIRO -- Recent clashes between rival Libyan militias for control of the capital, Tripoli, have displaced nearly 20,000 people, the U.N. said Tuesday, and has prompted the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to warn that she could investigate and possibly prosecute new offenses.

The self-styled Libyan National Army, aligned with a rival government in the east, launched a military offensive April 5 to take Tripoli, igniting clashes with rival militias allied with the U.N.-supported government.

International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who was already investigating crimes in Libya, said in a statement that she is "deeply concerned" about the escalation of violence. She called on military commanders to prevent war crimes.

She said she "will not hesitate to expand my investigations and potential prosecutions to cover any new instances of crimes falling within the Court's jurisdiction."

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric in New York said Tuesday that the number of people displaced because of hostilities in the Tripoli area has increased to nearly 20,000, including more than 2,500 in the previous 24 hours, according to the U.N. migration agency.

He said 50 civilian casualties were confirmed, including 14 deaths, but these individually verified cases must be considered "a minimum."

Dujarric said heavy weapons and shelling have damaged houses, schools and civilian infrastructure.

Dujarric said on Monday that about 3,000 migrants remained trapped in detention centers in and close to conflict areas. And "in some cases guards have abandoned the detention centers leaving detainees to their own devices without basic life-sustaining supplies such as food or water," he said.

On the ground Tuesday, militia leader Khalifa Hifter's media office said clashes have been ongoing for days in the town of Ain Zara, about 9 miles east of Tripoli.

It said clashes were taking place on the road that links the city to the Tripoli international airport. The Libyan National Army said earlier this month that it captured the airport, but rival militias said they reclaimed the facility. The airport has not been functional since fighting in 2014 destroyed much of the facility.

The battle for Tripoli threatens to ignite civil war on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. That conflict led to Bensouda's ongoing probe after the U.N. Security Council called for an investigation.

Since Gadhafi's ouster, Libya has been governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli in the west, each backed by various militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory.

The U.N. and Western nations support a transitional government set up in Tripoli in 2016 and led by Fayez Sarraj, a technocrat with no military experience. His government was forced to court powerful militias for its own protection, and these groups have vowed to repel Hifter's forces.

Information for this article was contributed by Edith M. Lederer, Rami Musa and Samy Magdy of The Associated Press.

A Section on 04/17/2019

Print Headline: 20,000 Libyans flee fight over capital

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