Battle for Tripoli intensifying as air strikes escalate
TUNIS - The Libyan National Army escalated its fight against Islamist militias controlling the centre of Tripoli with air strikes as opposite sides of the battle promised progress towards decisive victory.
Fighting flared up on main fronts, including near Tripoli International Airport, with an encounter June 19 during which Libyan National Army (LNA) soldiers said they killed nine members of the Bakara and al Halbous militias. Another 14 militiamen were taken prisoner.
Military experts said the firefight was an example of LNA's tactics in an intensely populated city to avoid casualties among civilians. The LNA has been luring militia members into non-populated areas. When militias advance to a seemingly evacuated position, LNA fighters attack or call for air strikes, the experts said.
Analysts said the tactics explain the constant flux in who is said to control various positions and the seemingly slow advance of the LNA towards the city centre.
Libyan reports said fighting near the airport June 19 lasted six hours with the LNA repelling a militia attack. Libyan Red Crescent crews recovered 40 bodies of killed militiamen, the reports stated.
The fighting in Tripoli has claimed the lives of some 700 people and driven more than 75,000 from their homes, the World Health Organisation said.
Libyan media quoted residents in Tripoli as saying they heard explosions amid intensified fighting in Ain Zara and other positions on the outskirts of the capital.
Both sides have escalated air strikes, with jet fighters of militia forces aligned with the internationally recognised government in Tripoli hitting LNA supply lines. LNA's warplanes struck militia positions near Tajoura, on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli.
Military experts said LNA has the advantage of well-trained units of special forces and its troops are experienced in laying siege after battles with Islamist militias in Benghazi and Derna and in the south since 2014.
However, the LNA faces challenges in deploying troops because of Libya's size and needs to end its battle in Tripoli before becoming overstretched.
The LNA, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, began its offensive April 4 against Islamist militias and extremist groups that back the Tripoli-based government of Fayez al-Sarraj. LNA forces were said to be a few kilometres from the centre of Tripoli after Haftar vowed not to stop the campaign until he was in control of the capital.
"The battle of Tripoli is in latest stage and the LNA is closing in on winning the battle as many militia members, especially deluded youth, are leaving the battlefields," LNA commander Abdesalam al-Hassi said June 19. "Those remaining in the battlefield are terrorists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda and Daesh (the Islamic State), who keep fighting to the last breath."
Leaders of the two camps refused calls for a ceasefire and appeared to link their political futures and the resolution of the Libyan conflict to the Tripoli battle.
"I will not sit down again with this person (Haftar) because what he has done in past years shows he won't be a partner in the political process," Sarraj told Reuters.
"This man (Sarraj) is disturbed. He does not own his decision. I have known him very well for several years and I had talked to him, as you know, but he does not really know what he wants," Haftar told a local interviewer.
"After freeing Tripoli, we will talk directly to the Libyan people about all the issues that will be put into the right framework to serve the interests of Libya and the Libyans."
Sarraj proposed a national conference to prepare for elections by year-end. "Libyans should meet to overcome this struggle for power," he argued.
The United Nations, which proposed its own forum before the battle for Tripoli began, the European Union and Libya's neighbours welcomed the idea. However, eastern lawmakers allied with Haftar rejected the proposal.
House of Representatives President Aguila Saleh said "85%” of Libyans back elections, “which are the only way out of the conflict.”
“Foreign interference is the only obstacle to this solution because the interests of these meddling countries are opposed to the interests of the Libyans,” he said.
"Haftar will never sit again with Sarraj," added Saleh, who supports Haftar.