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UN chief says 'deeply concerned' after meeting with Libya’s Haftar

Handout photo provided to Reuters | Aguila Saleh, Libya’s parliament president, meets UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Tobruk, Libya, April 5, 2019.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday he was leaving Libya with a "heavy heart" and was deeply concerned, after he held a meeting with eastern commander Khalifa Haftar who has ordered his troops to march on the capital Tripoli.

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"I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli," Guterres tweeted. 

The military thrust by Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), which is allied to a parallel administration based in the east, marked a dangerous escalation of a power struggle that has dragged on since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

LNA forces on Thursday took Gharyan, about 80 km (50 miles) south of Tripoli after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

But they failed to take a checkpoint about 30 km west of the capital in a bid to close the coastal road to Tunisia. An LNA-allied militia withdrew overnight from the so-called Checkpoint 27 in the Wershiffana region, leaving it abandoned in the morning, according to local media reports.

Libya's bitter rivals: Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj

Hours after Guterres and Haftar met, the LNA said it had taken control of Tripoli international airport, on the southern outskirts of the capital, according to a spokesman. Ahmed Mismari also told reporters his forces were in control of Tarhouna and Aziziya, Qasr ben Ghashir, Wadi al-Rabie and Suq al-Khamis near Tripoli.

Meanwhile militias allied to the UN-backed Tripoli government moved more machine gun-mounted pickups from the coastal city of Misrata to Tripoli to defend it against Haftar's forces.

The frontline is now located in Suq al-Khamis, some 45 km south of Tripoli, since Eastern forces allied to military commander Khalifa Hafter took control of this village on Friday, a resident and an eastern military source said.

Hamza Turkia / France 24 | Libyan Prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj inspects Checkpoint 27, April 5 2019.

Libyan forces allied to Tripoli have taken 145 troops prisoner from the Eastern forces, a commander said on Friday.

Most of the pro-Haftar fighters who briefly captured the checkpoint late Thursday were rival militiamen from the town of Sabratha further west along the Mediterranean coast.

They were captured in Zawiya west of Tripoli, said Mohamed Alhudairi, commander of the operations room for the western region. He told Reuters 60 vehicles had also been confiscated.

An eastern military source confirmed that 128 men had been captured, without elaborating.

UN surprised by escalation

The escalation surprised the UN, whose Secretary-General Guterres had been in Tripoli this week to help organise a national reconciliation national conference planned for later this month.

Guterres, who spent Thursday night in the heavily fortified UN compound in a Tripoli suburb, was flying to Benghazi on Friday to meet Haftar.

He will also go to Tobruk, another eastern city, to meet lawmakers of the House of Representatives, which is also allied to Haftar.

"My aim remains the same: avoid a military confrontation. I reiterate that there is no military solution for the Libyan crisis, only a political one," Guterres said on Twitter.

Assembly President Aguila Saleh welcomed the offensive, a spokesman said.

UN Security Council to hold emergency meeting

Germany called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council due to the military escalation.

In a statement sent amid talks in western France, G7 ministers urged an immediate halt to "all military activity and movements towards Tripoli" on Friday and implicitly warned Haftar against continuing his advance on the capital Tripoli.

"We firmly believe that there is no military solution to the Libyan conflict," the foreign ministers from France, Britain, Germany, United States, Italy, Japan and Canada said in the statement, adding that the military activity is “hindering prospects for the UN-led political process, putting civilians in danger, and prolonging the suffering of the Libyan people”.

Russia said it was not helping Haftar's forces and it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.

"The situation should be resolved peacefully," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Former colonial power Italy, which lies across the Mediterranean from Libya, was very worried by the turn of events, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.

FRANCE 24's Philip Turle discusses the situation in Libya

"We need to throw water on the fire, not petrol on the fire. I hope that people, acting out of economic or business self-interest, is not looking for a military solution, which would be devastating," Salvini said.

Saudi, UAE, Egyptian backing

The UN and Western countries have been trying to mediate between Sarraj and Haftar, who met in Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates (UAE), last month to discuss a power-sharing deal.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the UAE, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to UN reports.

Haftar held talks in the Saudi capital, Riyadh late last month and his forces have reportedly received major arms deliveries from the UAE, including aircraft, despite a UN embargo.

They already overran most of the remote oil fields and oasis cities of the desert south during an offensive earlier this year.

The conference the UN is helping to organise is aimed at forging agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and transit point for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara with the aim of reaching Europe.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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