Failure of GNA attack near Tunisian border marks a major setback for Fayez al-Sarraj

Libyans are more concerned about coronavirus threat than the continuing war.
Sunday 29/03/2020
Fighters of a military battalion loyal to Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar patrol the streets in the eastern city of Benghazi during a state of emergency to combat the coronavirus outbreak. (AFP)
New front. Fighters of a military battalion loyal to Libyan Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar patrol the streets in the eastern city of Benghazi during a state of emergency to combat the coronavirus outbreak. (AFP)

TUNIS - The first anniversary of the offensive by the Libyan National Army to take Tripoli falls on April 4 but there is no sign of a ceasefire or decisive victory by either side.

Despite an ostensible commitment to a humanitarian “pause” by both the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, fighting in Libya has massively intensified.

A call for a pause was issued March 16 by the United Nations and nine countries, although it was not until March 21 that both sides agreed to it.

Within hours, however, the agreement was broken by heavy shelling on Tripoli. Missiles have fallen day and night on various part of the city, mainly in the southern suburbs, although Bab Ben Ghashir district near the city centre has been hit more than once. Targets change.

The sound of the explosions kept frightened residents awake at nights.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,” one resident said March 27. “The bangs seemed so close. I didn’t know what to do. In the end I decided to wait for my fate.”

The shelling has not been one-sided. GNA forces are reported to have targeted Qasr Ben Ghashir near the old airport and areas nearer the main LNA operations base of Tarhouna, south-east of Tripoli.

Despite the intensification, the front lines in Tripoli’s southern suburbs have changed little. Further west, though, there have been major developments.

On March 26, GNA forces attacked the LNA-held Watiya airbase in the far west of Libya, 40km from the Tunisian border. The attack failed and the GNA forces retreated. The LNA counterattacked, reportedly capturing five towns in the area.

There were claims that the LNA had taken the small town of Abu Khammash, between the Tunisian border and the Libyan coastal town of Zuwara, and were moving towards the border post at Ras Jedir. An official from Zuwara told The Arab Weekly, however, that no LNA forces had arrived either at the border or Abu Khammash.

The failure of the Watiya attack was a major blow for the GNA and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Had it succeeded, the GNA would probably have seen support for LNA west of Tripoli crumble.

The base has been used to supply LNA forces in Rigdaleen, Al-Jmail, Sabratha and Sorman, all west of Tripoli. By defeating the attack, LNA consolidated its position in the west and claimed a significant propaganda boost.

The GNA has tried to maintain the moral high ground, claiming it is the LNA that constantly breaks ceasefire agreements. The attack exposed the GNA’s claimed support for both a long-term ceasefire and the humanitarian pause as false.

The attack was an offensive operation and GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, who is, in effect, in charge of GNA operations, had been promising a counteroffensive for some time.

Renewed military activity south of Misrata further highlighted the sham surrounding the humanitarian pause. On March 27, LNA and GNA forces clashed at Wadi Zamzam near the Abu Grain front line but neither side was able to gain ground.

Renewed military activity south of Misrata further highlighted the sham surrounding the humanitarian pause. On March 27, LNA and GNA forces clashed in a massive battle at Wadi Zamzam near the Abu Grain front line with neither side able to gain ground. The LNA air force said it conducted 16 sorties, hitting a number of targets.

For the past few weeks, the LNA air force has been conspicuously absent from action. There has been no explanation. One suggestion is the lack of aviation fuel, which may have been addressed by the arrival of a tankerload on March 13 in Benghazi. Another is the recent deployment of Turkish air defence systems in Tripoli and Misrata.

Even though the clashes continue, the coronavirus threat is the greater concern for most Libyans. Borders have been closed, internal travel stopped and mosques, cafes and other meeting points shuttered.

Curfews are in place, although, because of the political divide, the timings are different in eastern and western sections of the country.

People are sticking to the rules. Libya is a ghost town at night but packed during the day as shoppers stock up.

Until last week, Libya had no coronavirus cases but fears about it, not least concerning the ability of the Libya health system to cope with it, and precautions imposed have been enough to convince most Libyans, whether in Tripoli or far from it, that they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, between war and a potentially unstoppable epidemic. Despondency is deepening.

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