Rebel advances in Misurata raise hope of humanitarian breakthrough

Thousands of refugees are stranded in Misurata, Libya, and UN officials have warned of potential humanitarian crisis. But on Wednesday, rebels claimed to have captured the Misurata airport.

Rodrigo Abd/AP
Under dark skies, people walk in downtown Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday, May 10. Libyan rebels claimed Wednesday to have captured the airport in the seaport of Misurata, with hope of a humanitarian breakthrough for the besieged city.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Libyan rebels claimed Wednesday to have captured the airport in the seaport of Misurata – a turn of events that, if sustained, could mean a marked improvement in humanitarian conditions for the besieged city.

Thousands of refugees – both foreign and Libyan nationals – are stranded in the war-torn city, and United Nations officials have warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis if conditions for reaching the rebel-held portions of Libya don’t improve. So word of the captured airport raised hopes of a disaster averted.

Other reports Wednesday said that the airport was close to being taken by the rebels, but that fighting in the area raged on.

Still, humanitarian experts caution that simply ending fighting at the airport won’t be enough.

“Common sense dictates that it’s not only the airport but the periphery around the airport that has to be secured, since planes have to come in fairly low before they can land,” says Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva.

“Then there’s the question of what shape the runways are in; is the control tower operational?” he adds. “It’s still too early to say what, if any, impact this will have on the humanitarian situation.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that it was able to dock a ship with relief supplies in Misurata on Tuesday. But without access to the airport and with fighting continuing around the seaport, UN officials said this week that food and other humanitarian supplies were unable to arrive regularly or fast enough to avoid a crisis.

The IOM has evacuated more than 6,000 refugees from Misurata by boat. The Red Cross has also evacuated a few thousand refugees. But officials acknowledge that this is a small fraction of the number of migrant workers and Libyans stuck in the city and seeking to leave.

“Our capacity to evacuate people from Libya is far outstripped by the sheer number of people wanting to leave,” Mr. Chauzy says.

With the number of refugees desperate to escape the fighting only swelling, reports are mounting of overloaded fishing boats and other private vessels capsizing and losing their human cargo at sea.

Commercial ships and other vessels coming upon boats in distress are under an obligation, according to international maritime law, to assist, humanitarian experts note. They also note, however, that small fishing boats confronting a chaotic scene of a sinking boat may be legitimately concerned about being swamped themselves.

“There’s an obligation to at least relay an SOS,” says Chauzy.

Rendering the situation all the more dangerous is the fact that many of the private boats setting sail from the Libyan coast are trying to avoid detection. Whereas the IOM is taking refugees to the Libyan rebels’ capital of Benghazi, most of the private boats are trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.

“We know that one of the boats that sank left the shore at 4 a.m., so clearly they did not want to be detected,” Chauzy says. “It ended in a real tragedy.”

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