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Haftar’s forces continue push into Tripoli as Libya crisis escalates

Esam Omran Al-Fetori, Reuters | Khalifa Haftar’s forces pose for a picture as they head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, in Benghazi, Libya, April 7, 2019.

Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar continued their push into Tripoli on Monday, disregarding global appeals for a truce while a rival UN-backed administration announced a "counteroffensive" to defend the capital.

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Libyan authorities closed the only functioning airport in the capital Tripoli after it was hit by an air strike claimed by Haftar’s forces and which targeteda MiG-23 military plane and a helicopter. A security source at the airport said the strike hit a runway without causing casualties.

The fighting in southern Tripoli has so far killed at least 25 and wounded 80, a spokesman for the health ministry said Monday.

Forces loyal to Haftar have pressed on with their assault since Thursday despite international calls to halt hostilities.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Monday urged the strongman to stop his offensive in the wake of previous calls for restraint from the UN Security Council and the United States.

"I make a very strong appeal to Libyan leaders and in particular to Haftar to stop all military activities ... and to return to the negotiation table," Mogherini said after talks with EU foreign ministers.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Libya’s UN-backed prime minister, Fayez al-Serraj, on the telephone Monday. A statement on the Tripoli-based government’s Facebook page said the two discussed security developments amid the ongoing offensive.

Libya’s ‘mosaic of militias’ makes it difficult to predict the victor

Haftar’s forces said Sunday they had carried out their first air strike on a suburb of Tripoli. The announcement was made on the Facebook page of the "media office" of Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) as fighting raged around 50 kilometres south of Tripoli.

Foreign troops pulled out

The US announced it had temporarily withdrawn some of its forces in the country due to “security conditions on the ground” also on Sunday.

A small contingent of American troops has been based in Libya in recent years, helping local forces combat Islamic State (IS) group and al Qaeda militants, as well as protecting diplomatic facilities.

“The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable,” said Marine Corps Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of US Africa Command. “Even with an adjustment of the force, we will continue to remain agile in support of existing US strategy.”

He did not provide details on the number of US troops that have been withdrawn or how many remain in the country.

India also evacuated a small contingent of peacekeepers. The Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said the country’s 15 Central Reserve Police Force peacekeepers were evacuated Saturday from Tripoli because the “situation in Libya has suddenly worsened” and fighting has moved into the capital city.

Civilians fleeing

Libya has struggled to counter unrest since the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, leaving dozens of militia to fill the void and ally with either the internationally recognised GNA or a rival administration in the east backed by Haftar.

Since the latest unrest started on April 4, an estimated 3,400 people have fled the fighting south of Tripoli, the United Nations humanitarian office said, adding that many civilians are trapped and cut off from emergency services.

“The fast increasing deployment of forces could potentially result in significant population displacement,” it said in a report.

Clashes raged in the mainly farmland region of Wadi Raba on the weekend and the destroyed old international airport south of the capital.

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

Calls for truce

The latest offensive marks a major escalation in the Libyan crisis amid fears of heavy fighting in the heart of the capital city.

The UN mission to Libya (UNSMIL) on Sunday called for a truce for two hours in southern Tripoli to evacuate civilians and wounded, it said in a statement.

But the truce was not observed by evening, according to a UN official.

The US also called for Haftar's forces to stand down.

"We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar's forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said late Sunday.

"This unilateral military campaign against Tripoli is endangering civilians and undermining prospects for a better future for all Libyans," he added.

G7 foreign ministers meeting in the French coastal city of Dinard on Saturday called on Haftar to halt his offensive on Tripoli. But they failed to detail enforcement mechanisms if the Libyan strongman refused to commit to a political solution.

'Volcano of Anger'

The strike came shortly after the rival UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) announced a counteroffensive to defend Tripoli from Haftar’s forces.

At a press briefing in the Libyan capital, a spokesman loyal to the GNA announced the launch of operation “Volcano of Anger” against Haftar’s forces.

The counteroffensive was aimed at "purging all Libyan cities of aggressor and illegitimate forces," said Colonel Mohamed Gnounou.

In the past, Haftar has struck deals with armed factions outside Tripoli to advance his forces. But gaining control of Tripoli – Haftar’s ultimate prize – is likely to be more complicated.

Armed groups allied to the Tripoli government have moved more machinegun-mounted pickup trucks from Misrata to Tripoli to defend the city against Haftar's forces. Misrata is known for its spirit of resistance against "old regime" figures such as Haftar – who served in Gaddafi’s army – since 2011, when pro-Gaddafi forces besieged the city for three months.

GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj on Saturday accused Haftar of betraying him and warned of a "war without a winner".

While Haftar has sold himself to the West as an anti-Islamist fighter, experts say he has close links to a branch of Salafists called Madkhalists.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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