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UN says fighting over Libya's capital has displaced 20,000

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

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

International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who was already investigating crimes in Libya, said in a statement that she is "deeply concerned" about the escalation of violence and 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."

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric in New York said the number of people displaced due to hostilities in the Tripoli area has increased to near 20,000, including more than 2,500 in the last 24 hours, according to the UN migration agency.

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

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

Dujarric said that around 3,000 migrants remain 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, Hifter's media office said clashes have been ongoing for days in the town of Ain Zara about 15 kilometres east of Tripoli.

It said clashes were taking place on the road that links the city to the Tripoli international airport. The LNA said earlier this month that they 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 could 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 UN Security Council called for an investigation.

Since Gahdafi'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.

Fighters under the UN-backed government on the front lines during clashes in southern Tripoli. Source: Associated Press