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Libya: US sanctions Kaniyat militia suspected of killing hundreds

Armed group, which is part of Haftar's LNA, accused of human rights abuses in the Libyan town of Tarhuna
Mohammed al-Kani and his brother Abdul Rahman al-Kani (Social media)

The United States on Wednesday unilaterally sanctioned the Kaniyat, a militia accused of murdering hundreds of civilians in the western Libyan town of Tarhuna.

Washington made the move against the armed group and its leader, part of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), after Russia prevented a United Nations Security Council committee from imposing sanctions last week.

Also known as the 7th Brigade or the LNA's 9th Brigade, the Kaniyat is a notorious militia headed by Mohammed al-Kani and his brothers.

Tarhuna timeline: 2011 - 2020

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How a town of 40,000 people became pivotal in the Libyan conflict:


2011: A Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi topples the longtime autocrat, who is killed in October.


2012: Ali al-Kani, the only Kani brother to rebel against Gaddafi, is murdered on the road to Tajoura by a group of men, including some from the rival Naaja family. Mohammed al-Kani, who is in Saudi Arabia for Hajj, orders no action to be taken until he is back.

Mohammed’s return to Tarhuna is followed by a string of murders and lynchings. One man suspected of killing his brother is paraded in a central square. The reprisals are the start of the Kanis’ ascent.


2014: Libya is divided by a new civil war. The Kani clan back the Tripoli-based Libya Dawn administration and reject Haftar’s offensive against Islamists and militants in Benghazi.


2015: The Kanis have full control over Tarhuna. They now control a force of 4,000 men known as the Kaniyat, or 7th Brigade, absorbing local security services.


2017: Millions of migrants and refugees passing through Libya en route to Europe prompt the Kani to set up an anti-smuggling operation.


2018: The Kanis agree deals with rivals in Misrata and Zintan, before launching an assault on Tripoli. The Kaniyat attacks the Libyan capital, claiming it is doing so to stop corruption and embezzlement, although in reality it wants funds and influence. To the Kanis’ chagrin, the Mistrans largely stay out of the conflict: the assault ultimately backfires and costs more than 100 deaths.


2019: Haftar allies with the Kanis: the Kaniyat become the 9th Brigade of his Libyan National Army (LNA). In April, the LNA assault Tripoli from Tarhuna and Gharyan. Despite believing the conflict would last weeks, the offensive drags on.

In September Mohsen al-Kani is killed alongside younger brother Abdul Azim. The Government of National Accord (GNA) counterattacks Tarhuna in October and December, exposing LNA weaknesses. In retaliation the Kaniyat take out reprisals on the Tarhuna's residents.


2020: In late May the LNA is struggling to hold its positions around Tripoli, and pro-Haftar Wagner Group Russian mercenaries retreat from the frontline. As LNA fighters begin to retreat, the Kaniyat fire on them in an attempt to stop the collapse.

GNA forces capture Tarhuna in early June. The Kanis and Kaniyat flee east.

The Kaniyat had complete control over Tarhuna, a town 60km from Tripoli, from 2015 until May this year, when an assault on the capital it was participating in collapsed and the militia fled east.

When forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) captured Tarhuna in May, mass graves suspected to hold hundreds of bodies began to be discovered. Over 100 corpses were also found in a local morgue, including those of children and fighters.

Middle East Eye travelled to Tarhuna in September, where residents recounted scores of disappearances, murders and human rights abuses at the hands of the Kaniyat.

In Tarhuna, MEE saw multiple mass graves, and detention facilities with evidence of torture.

Around 300 people have been reported missing in Tarhuna. Local officials say they expect around 150 more to be reported as fear of reprisals recedes.

Torture and murder

Using the Global Magnitsky Act, the US government has frozen any assets members of the Kaniyat may have in the United States and prohibited Americans from doing business with them.

“Mohammed al-Kani and the Kaniyat militia have tortured and killed civilians during a cruel campaign of oppression in Libya,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The killing fields of Libya's Tarhuna
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“The United States stands with the Libyan people and will use the tools and authorities at its disposal to target human rights abusers in Libya and across the world.”

At least 11 mass graves containing the bodies of around 100 people - men, women and children - have been found so far.

Many of the corpses discovered have shown evidence of torture. Some have been burnt, others buried alive.

"The Kaniyat militia is also responsible for hundreds of summary executions at Tarhuna prison, numerous forced disappearances, and the displacement of entire families from Tarhuna," the Treasury said in a statement.

Housed in the east

Before April 2019, the Kaniyat was allied to the GNA. But the militia switched sides that month when Haftar, a UAE-, Egypt- and Russia-backed warlord, began an assault on Tripoli hoping to topple the UN-recognised government.

The Kaniyat, thought to be made up of around 4,000 men, also fled east with its fighters' families, who are now predominently found in the Haftar-held city of Ajdabiya.

Six corpses found in a mass grave in the Libyan town of Tarhuna in October. Around 100 bodies have been discovered so far (Supplied)
Six corpses found in a mass grave in the Libyan town of Tarhuna in October. Around 100 bodies have been discovered so far (Supplied)

LNA spokesman Major General Ahmed al-Mismari previously told MEE the mass graves in Tarhuna were "crimes against humanity", but insisted the bodies dated from the time the Kaniyat was allied to the GNA.

Tarhuna residents, however, told MEE that the Kani family and its militia committed the vast majority of its crimes during the LNA assault on Tripoli, when the town was being used as a launchpad for Haftar's offensive.

The abuses and killings in Tarhuna are also being looked into by the International Criminal Court.

The ICC prosecutor’s office told MEE it was “following up on this matter in particular with the competent Libyan authorities, in accordance with the principle of complementarity, to ensure that these mass graves are investigated”.

Sanctions

Ealier this month, the US and Germany proposed a UN Security Council committee hit the Kaniyat with a travel ban and asset freeze.

However, Russia, which supports the LNA and has provided Russian mercenaries to its ranks, argued on Friday that more evidence that the Kaniyat had killed civilians was needed before sanctions could be applied. The committee requires unanimous approval to issue sanctions.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya analyst, said: "This week has shown how political the Kani family's atrocities have remained."

"Russia couldn't help but veto a UN Security Council effort targeting Mohammed al-Kani, the brain behind the Kaniyat, even though almost no Libyan believes he is innocent. That Russian refusal is part of why the US issued its own sanctions on a unilateral basis," he told MEE.

'Russia couldn't help but veto a UN Security Council effort targeting Mohammed al-Kani, the brain behind the Kaniyat, even though almost no Libyan believes he is innocent'

- Jalel Harchaoui, analyst

"In a less dysfunctional world, the UN Security Council would have found a way to agree on a stark case like Mohammed al-Kani's."

Harchaoui said attempts by the LNA and its supporters to deflect criticism for the Kaniyat's killings were baseless and futile.

"A lot of Haftar sympathisers maintain that the vast majority of the Kani killings happened before April 2019. The more than 100 corpses found in the morgue in early June is of course a clear reminder that that is a lie," he said. 

"Many of the killings happened before April 2019, but a large number happened after, too - i.e., during the alliance with Haftar."

Hanan Salah, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for Libya, welcomed the sanctions, but warned "there is a risk of this becoming mere tokenism unless the US follows up with stronger measures and goes after the enablers of these militias".

"Because let’s face it, these militias were armed to the teeth, and at least during the course of the latest conflict were aligned with the Libyan Arab Armed Forces [LNA] under the command of Khalifa Haftar," she told MEE.

"So I would say that senior field commanders of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces carry as much responsibility for these violations and should also be held to account."

Middle East Eye has asked the LNA for comment on the sanctions and its hosting of the Kaniyat in eastern Libya, but not received a response by the time of publication.