Monday 15 March 2021

Disaster at Tarhuna: When Haftar Lost Another Stronghold In Crushing Defeat To The GNA

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans in collaboration with MENA_Conflict and COIN_TR

Forces loyal to Libya's internationally-recognised government (GNA) captured the city of Tarhuna on the 5th of June 2020, marking the official end of the Libyan National Army's (LNA) 14-month long offensive that aimed to capture the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Tarhuna, located some sixty kilometers south-west from Tripoli's city centre, was the last stronghold of Haftar in northwestern Libya, and by the virtue of its role as a giant supply depot for the LNA also the most important one. 
Already shortly after Tarhuna's capture by the GNA it became evident what years of occupation had meant for the city's residents. Under the control of the Kaniyat militia since April 2015, which pledged allegiance to Khalifa Haftar's LNA in April 2019, its men imposed a regime of terror on the local population. Since the Kaniyat militia first took over the city in 2015, local residents reported a total of 338 missing persons cases, the vast majority of which in the period between April 2019 to June 2020. [1] [2] The fate of many of these persons was elucidated after the discovery of some 30 mass graves in and around Tarhuna, including several with the remains of women and children in them. [1] Tragically, new mass graves continue to be found to this day. [3]

While most attention has justifiably gone to the large number of mass graves encountered around Tarhuna, this has meant that the massive losses of arms and equipment went largely unnoticed. Of course, the Libyan Civil War has seen a range of major arms hauls, but Tarhuna was of specific interest because it once again revealed the sheer number of types of arms and equipment supplied to the LNA by its foreign backers (Russia, the UAE, Jordan, France and Egypt) over the past several years. These included several types previously not known to have been supplied to the LNA, as evidenced later in this article.
The figures below are an conservative estimate of the ammunition captured; the real figures are believed to be much higher. The contents of at least 454 crates could not be identified. Small arms are not included in this list due to the small quantities recorded in the available footage, nor are derelict vehicles including aircraft and helicopters.


- 249 cans of small arms ammunition.
- 139 cans of heavy machine gun ammunition.
- 211 rounds of PG-9/15 and OG-9/15 ammunition (for BMP-1 and SPG-9).
- 2 rounds of RPG-32 ammunition (for Nashshab RPG).
- 5 rounds of 82mm ammunition.
- 1 round of 84mm ammunition (for Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle).
- 3 rounds of 106mm ammunition.
- 32 rounds of 100mm ammunition (for T-55 tank).
- 8 rounds of 107mm ammunition (for Type-63 MRL).
- 122 rounds of 120mm ammunition. 
- 48 rounds of 122mm ammunition (for D-30 howitzer).
- 177 rounds of 122mm ammunition (for BM-21 MRL). 
- 18 rounds of 152mm ammunition.
- 35 Unidentified rocket boosters.
- 6 MON-50 anti-personnel mines.
- 16 MON-100 anti-personnel mines.
- 18 OZM-72 anti-personnel mines. 
- 12 TM-62 anti-tank mines.
- 4 Type-72SP anti-tank mines. 
- 4 TM-83 anti-tank mines. 
- 10 9M133 Kornet ATGMs.

- 3 14.5mm ZPU-2s.
- 6 23mm ZU-23s.
- 5 82mm 82-BM-37 mortars.
- 2 106mm M40 recoilless rifles.
- 2 122mm D-30 howitzers.
- 1 122mm North Korean field-gun.
- 6 130mm M-46 field-guns.


- 56 T-55As.
- 3 T-55Es.
- 17 T-62 Obr. 1972s.
- 1 T-62M.
- 2 T-62MVs.
- 1 T-72 'Ural'.
- 2 T-72M1s.
- 2 EE-9 Cascavels.
- 23 BMP-1s.
- 3 OT-62 TOPAS'.
- 2 Ratel IFVs.
- 1 122mm 2S1 Gvozdika SPG.
- 3 152mm 2S3 Akatsiya SPGs.
- 9 155mm Palmaria SPGs.
- 1 155mm M109 SPG.
- 1 107mm Type-63 MRL.
- 4 122mm BM-21 MRLs.
- 2 122mm North Korean MRLs modified to use 122mm rockets by the UAE.
- 1 Nimr Infantry Mobility Vehicle (IMV).
- 5 KADDB Al-Wahsh IMV.
- 3 MSPV Panthera T6 IMV.
- 1 MSPV Panthera F9 IMV.
- 4 Streit Group/KrAZ Cougar IMV.
- 3 Streit Group/KrAZ Spartan IMV.
- 2 (Armoured) front loaders.
- 88 Technicals (roughly 75% destroyed or damaged beyond economical repair).
- 3 HMMWV.
- 1 IVECO Trakker 380.
- 2 KAMAZ trucks. 
- 6 Trucks.

- 1 Mi-35.
- 1 A109E.
- 3 AW139.
The combined contents of each can of small arms munition vastly exceeds what could be visibly counted, but by volume the total amount would equal roughly 164,000 rounds of 7.62x39mm or 109,000 rounds of 7.62x54mm, though it is likely a mixture of both.

Much of the captured ammunition was quickly taken away by their capturers, with technicals literally filled to the brim with ammunition crates and arguably more worryingly, mortar and artillery rounds that were taken out of their protective boxes.

Stashes of MON-50, MON-100 and OZM-72 anti-personnel mines and TM-62 and TM-83 anti-tank mines were found all throughout Tarhuna. All of these are believed to have been brought in by Russia for use with Wagner PMC, and quickly became notorious for the manner in which they were placed around what then were still LNA-held parts of Tripoli. Although planting mines to cover strategic avenues of approach or even the surroundings of the bases where Russian soldiers were located makes sense from a military perspective, Wagner ended up planting large numbers throughout several of Tripoli's suburbs shortly before it retreated from Tripoli. While the placement of some of these mines appears to have been a deliberate effort at slowing down the GNA, forcing it to divert significant resources into clearing them, others clearly had more sinister aims, supposedly even including a teddy bear IED that undoubtedly sought to kill the child grabbing it.

Some 175 rounds of 122mm rocket ammunition for BM-21 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) were encountered in a storage hall. Contrary to keeping the rockets safely stowed in their wooden boxes, all of the rockets were dumped on big piles: a clear disregard for even the most basic of safety measures.

Heavy equipment now in the hands of the GNA: the T-62M and T-62MV are the first examples of their respective types to have been captured in Libya. Both the T-62M and T-62MV were delivered by Russia to the LNA in the past year, and were not present in the arsenal of the Libyan Army before the start of the Libyan Civil War. While the majority of arms and equipment brought to Libya by Russia was intended for use by Wagner, the T-62s were supplied outright to the LNA. The rather peculiar looking gun seen in the hands of the GNA directly below is a Chinese DHI-UAV-D-1000JHV2 anti-drone gun, which was also captured from the LNA. [4]

Russia is not the only country to have brought its tanks to Libya, as evidenced by the Egyptian-supplied T-55E below. Although Libya once fielded the second-largest tank force in Africa, most of these tanks were inoperational and left without spare parts in 2011. This led to the rather peculiar situation where a country with more than 2000 tanks stored in depots around the country had to ultimately rely on other countries to provide it with enough tanks for its needs. At least three T-55Es were captured around Tarhuna, with a fourth example (complete with a German AEG infrared spotlight) captured in a suburb of Tripoli some time before. [5]

Large numbers of tanks received by Libya during the 1970s and 1980s were captured as well. Much of the captured armour consisted of T-55s and T-62s, although at least three more modern T-72s were also encountered. It is unlikely that many of these were in working order at the time of capture, and some might already have served as a source of spare parts to keep other LNA tanks in Western Libya running.

More tanks and other types of AFVs were encountered at an armour storage and repair facility located just south of Tarhuna. Relegated to the unglamorous role of vehicle dumping ground after the 1990s, the LNA gladly made use of the facilities present to keep its own fleet of AFVs operational running after it took over the base in 2019.
Most of the armoured fighting vehicles that were captured here (including two Czechoslovak OT-62 TOPAS' seen in the image directly below) appear to have been inoperational for some time, with the T-55A that could be seen driven away by its capturers likely a rare exception.

Two Brazilian EE-9 Cascavel armoured cars were also captured. These were originally delivered to Libya in the late 1970s along with a batch of EE-11 Urutu APCs and saw heavy action during the Chadian–Libyan conflict before being retired somewhere in the early 2000s. After 2011, several of the factions warring for control over Libya managed to reactivate some EE-9s, and will surely continue to operate them as long as the supply of spare parts obtained from cannibalising other vehicles lasts.

Also captured were no less than 23 BMP-1s, although only a small number of these were operational at the time of capture, with most others likely requiring an overhaul and spare parts to become operational again. Given the numbers captured which could serve as a source of spare parts, reactivating some should be well within the GNA's abilities.

Two South African Ratel APCs (one being a Ratel 60, the other believed to be a Ratel 20), likely part of a batch delivered to Libyan rebels during the 2011 revolution. Both bear traces of extensive use, but noticably don't suffer from any flat tires. The Ratel 60 appears to have received a direct hit on its turret, but might still have been operated in a support role.

Also encountered were nine towed artillery pieces, including six 130mm M-46 field guns and two 122mm D-30 howitzers. These all appeared to be in working order, and were quickly taken away by their capturers.

A more interesting find (at least to us): one disabled North Korean 122mm field-gun that was clearly inoperational already for some time. This elusive gun serves as a reminder to the close ties once enjoyed between the DPRK and Libya, more on which can be read in our book on the Armed Forces of North Korea.

A single U.S. 155mm M109 self-propelled howitzer was also discovered. The delivery of these SPGs to Libya actually predates the Gaddafi-regime, but unlike the M113 APCs received during the same era, Gaddafi's military made little use of them. It would only be after the 2011 revolution that they saw active service again, including one example that was used by Libya Dawn against Islamic State forces in Sirte, October 2016. More on the history of these esoteric SPGs in Libyan service can be read here.

Almost equally rare as the M109 in Libya is the Soviet 152mm 2S3 Akatsiya SPG, around 50 of which arrived to Libya in the early 1980s. All of these had been placed in storage before the outbreak of the 2011 revolution, likely because of a lack of available spare parts with which to keep the small fleet in working order. Nonetheless, at least three examples that appeared to be operational were captured by the GNA in Tarhuna.

It only makes sense that Libya's most numerous SPG made an appearance as well: the Italian 155mm Palmaria self-propelled howitzer, nine of which were captured by the GNA. In post-2011 Libya, the Palmarias have mostly been used in the direct-fire role, most notably by Libya Dawn against entrenched Islamic State fighters in Sirte in 2016.

Captured 122mm BM-21 'Grad' multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) line the streets of Tarhuna. Also seen is a Chinese Type-63 107mm MRL mounted on a Toyota pickup truck, whose evacuation by the LNA was prevented by a blown tire.

In the process of shifting through the spoils encounted at Tarhuna, the GNA encountered a number of MRLs that were at the time completely unknown. The rocket pods are of the same type delivered to the UAE by Turkey's Roketsan to be installed on the massive Jobaria MRL. The truck and erection mechanism are more of an enigma however, unless one has prior knowledge of North Korea's arms deliveries to the UAE. The erection mechanism is then easily identified as the one used on North Korean 240mm MRLs acquired by the UAE in 1989. [7] The truck is also of note, being an uparmoured variant of the Italian Iveco 260/330.35 (also known as the ACP90). Excess to requirements in the UAE, the launchers were at some point modified to fire 122mm rockets and subsequently shipped to Libya for use with the LNA, which lost two of them along with several rocket pods in Tarhuna. More on North Korean armament in service with the UAE can be read in our article here.

Of course, any battle fought in Libya wouldn't be complete without the destruction of at least one Pantsir-S1 at the hands of a Bayraktar TB2. This example nicknamed 'Stroller' (a name likely given by its former Emirati operators) was targeted while hiding in a large shed on the 20th of May. [8] It is unknown if the GNA received intelligence that pointed to its presence there or if it was previously seen driving into the shed by a TB2 and later targeted. Interestingly, the LNA made no attempt to evacuate the badly damaged Pantsir-S1, and although suffering considerable damage it was later recovered by the GNA.

Some of the infantry mobility vehicles (IMV) to have fallen in the hands of the GNA, all of which were delivered by the UAE to the LNA in recent years. From top to bottom, a Streit Group/KrAZ Spartan, a Streit Group/KrAZ Cougar, a MSPV Panthera T6 and a MSPV Panthera F9. The LNA set out to modify several of these types with DIY armour, often centered around the wheels to protect them against small arms fire. However, on the vehicles captured in and around Tarhuna no such modifications were present.
A more exotic type of vehicle (at least in Libya) predates the delivery of large numbers of IMVs to the LNA, these being three HMMMVs that belonged to a batch of some 200 vehicles delivered by the U.S. to the newly reborn Libyan Army in 2012. [9] After 2014, each party set out to make the most out of the small numbers of operational HMMMVs in their control, some even upgrading them with 90mm cannons taken from the EE-9 armoured cars. [10]
At least nine trucks (but likely many more), were found abandoned or destroyed in and around Tarhuna, including a KAMAZ 6x6 truck delivered to the LNA by Russia. Two front loaders, one of which with armoured steel plating, were also captured. Also note the damaged Jordanian KADDB Al-Wahsh IMV just to the rear of the KAMAZ in the second photo.
When GNA forces reached Abou Aisha and its local airport on their way to Tarhuna, they not only encountered several reminders of the little-known aviation activities that once took place here, but also dozens of vehicles that were burned by the LNA shortly before they withdrew from the area, undoubtedly in an effort to prevent their capture by the GNA. However, closer inspection of the charred wrecks reveals that most technicals had already sustained (major) damage before they were burned, making it likely that this hangar was used as a storage area for vehicles that had sustained damage in the field.

Unbeknownst to many, Abou Aisha airport (also known as Fam Molga) was once the scene of a promising aviation industry known as the Libyan Italian Advanced Technology Company (LIATEC), established as a joint venture between Italy and Libya for a production assembly line and maintenance center for A109 and AW139 helicopters. [11] Opened in April 2010, only a small number of helicopters were ultimately assembled here before the 2011 revolution and the ensuing instability in the country put an end to what could have been the promising kickstart of an indigenous aviation industry.
While the LNA appears to have burned the vehicles in the first hangar to prevent their capture by the GNA, it left a Mi-24V/Mi-35 attack helicopter completely unharmed in the hangar next to it. Much like the Mi-24V captured intact at al-Watiya airbase two weeks prior, this example too appears to have suffered from a technical defect that prevented a flight out to an LNA-held airbase.
Now faced with the 'difficult' choice of either moving the Mi-35 to an airbase in Tripoli or Misrata, where the helicopter could be repaired and pressed into service with the badly-depleted GNA Air Force, or taking the helicopter for a drive behind the back of a car (i.e. joyriding), GNA fighters happily chose the second option. With their driving skills only matched by their wisdom in decision making, it didn't take long before they crashed the helicopter into a tree, causing a part of the right stub wing to fall off. The damaged helicopter was then transported to Mitiga airbase in Tripoli, but not before it had another collision on its way there, this time with a bridge.

Dusty traces of the activities that once took place at Abou Aisha: two fully-assembled AW139s (one for the Libyan Air Force, the other for the Libyan Ministry of Interior) and one AW139 that was still in the process of assembly when the 2011 revolution broke out, after which all further work at LIATEC was halted. One A109E, the only other type assembled at LIATEC, was also found dumped at the grounds of the airport. Ten other aircraft, seven of which cropdusters, made up the rest of the airport's flying inventory.

On the 6th of June GNA forces also gained control over Bani Walid, the elders council of which had agreed on a bloodless transition of the town to the GNA after the LNA had abandoned it. The local airport had previously been used to bring in supplies and equipment to LNA forces in Western Libya, a necessity after flight operations at al-Watiya had become nigh on impossible due to the introduction of Bayraktar TB2s to the Libyan theatre of war. [12] [13] To better accommodate large transport aircraft like the Il-76, Bani Walid's runway was lengthened to 3000 metres in early-to-mid 2020. Unfortunately for the LNA, its forces were routed from Western Libya only a month after the runway was finished, preventing them from getting much use out of it. 
For Wagner PMC the completion of the lengthened runway couldn't have come at a better time however, as its forces began their sudden withdrawal from Western Libya shortly after the runway had been finished. While most mercenaries retreated in what appeared to be endless convoys towards Sabha and al-Jufra located in Central Libya, others flocked to Bani Walid along with their heavy equipment for a flight out of Western Libya. This included several Pantsir-S1s and their supporting vehicles that were supplied to Wagner by the UAE. [14]

Also present at Bani Walid were eleven Czechoslovak Let L-410 Turbolet utility aircraft (out of 19 originally received in 1983). [15] In Libyan service these aircraft saw use as light transport aircraft and advanced trainers before the surviving fleet was abandoned at Bani Walid once spare parts for them ran out. Stored in a dry, desert environment that helped to preserve the aircraft from corrosion, no attempts were made to reactivate the fleet after the arms embargo on Libya was lifted in 2003 however.

With over 125 armoured fighting vehicles, including some eighty tanks and numerous aircraft and helicopters lost to the GNA, once could easily mistake the importance of Tarhuna's capture for a major arms haul rather than the loss of an important strategic stronghold for the LNA. In reality, much of the captured equipment needs repairs or spare parts to further serve in a conflict where a new way of fighting is being pioneered that has relegated most of this equipment to mere target practice: Bayraktar Diplomacy.
For the first time forced on the defensive to prevent further GNA advances into LNA-controlled territory, Haftar's aim of ruling the entirety of Libya appears more distant than ever. Indeed, the next victim of the conflict might not be another Pantsir-S1 air defence system or the loss of a strategic foothold, but Khalifa Haftar himself. Having poured billions of dollars, advanced weapon systems and manpower into Libya, the LNA's foreign backers might now finally demand to see real results for their investments.

Special thanks to Monitoring
[1] New mass graves in Libya’s Tarhuna demand accountability
[7] Inconvenient arms: North Korean weapons in the Middle East  
[11] Finmeccanica and AgustaWestland JV in Libya; EUR 80 million Contract Signed for Ten A109 Power Helicopters,-forms-jvc-(jan-18).html

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