LNA's anti-Islamist forces press ahead with Tripoli offensive
TUNIS - Libyan forces led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar quickened their advance towards Tripoli’s centre, intensifying their offensive against Islamist militias and extremist groups that back the Tripoli-based government of Fayez al-Sarraj.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces pushed to within a few kilometres of the centre of Tripoli after the field-marshal vowed not to stop the campaign until he was in control of the capital.
The refusal of any ceasefire by the two camps heightened worries by the United Nations, neighbouring countries and foreign powers.
Haftar said he saw no need for a ceasefire because the LNA's offensive will end, in his view, with the militias’ surrender, a rebuttal to Sarraj, who conditioned a ceasefire on the LNA's troops "returning from where they came."
Libya's neighbours worry an escalation of Tripoli's fighting could trigger confrontations across the country that could cause mass displacement of the population, waves of illegal migrants to Europe and an expansion of Islamic State and al-Qaeda activities in the region.
After a lull in the fighting during much of Ramadan, statements by LNA's spokesmen and video on social media purported to show LNA's forces making gains by taking control of the Salah al-Din area, a few kilometres from downtown Tripoli, following intensified clashes.
"This is Salah al-Din. We will be soon in the centre of Tripoli," shouted an LNA's soldier as he fired from a machine gun mounted to the back of a vehicle. Soldiers armed with rocket launchers and machine guns advanced alongside as a tank manoeuvred nearby.
Saraj al-Majbri, an aide to the LNA's chief of staff, said in a statement that Haftar's forces made gains in the battle and controlled Salah al-Din.
LNA's forces began their offensive April 4. Libya plunged into violence amid a power vacuum since 2011 when NATO-backed Islamist rebels overthrew long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Libya is divided between Haftar, whose LNA forces control eastern Libya and much of the south of the country, and Sarraj who runs the UN-supported government in Tripoli with Islamist militias and jihadist groups providing support.
The battle for Tripoli is a break with a pattern of the Libyan conflict since the Islamists backed by Qatar and Turkey defeated nationalist and nascent secularist forces in 2014.
Since then the conflict was largely contained to small areas. Prolonged battles later caused massive damage to Benghazi, Derna and Sirte. Most of the country, including Tripoli, had been spared large-scale fighting.
However, the sight of homes reduced to rubble on the outskirts of Tripoli after an air strike May 28, an attack blamed on warplanes backing the Islamist militias, prompted fears of more destruction in Tripoli and elsewhere if the fighting continued to escalate.
Tripoli residents said heavy battles took place along a road linking the capital with the airport. The LNA controls Tripoli International Airport, which has been closed for about two years.
Haftar has said the militias control Sarraj's government, which makes dialogue to advance the UN-backed political process meaningless.
"In the last round of negotiations, I realised that it's not [Sarraj] who decides," Haftar told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche after talks May 26 in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron.
"Of course, a political solution remains the objective but to get back to politics we have to finish with the militias," added Haftar.
In response to calls from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt for a truce, Haftar affirmed that "the solution in Tripoli lies in restoring peace and security. If the militias give up their weapons, there will be no need for a ceasefire."
The United States and Egypt, both perceived as backers of Haftar, on May 28 called for calm as the LNA stepped up its offensive.
The fighting in Tripoli has claimed the lives of more than 500 people and driven more than 75,000 from their homes, the World Health Organisation said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the situation in Libya during a telephone conversation with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, the US State Department said. Pompeo and Shoukry saw an "urgent need to achieve a political solution in Libya and prevent further escalation," State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
Following the discussion between Pompeo and Shoukry, Haftar briefed Egyptian General Intelligence Service Director General Abbas Kamel on developments in Tripoli, Libyan media reported.
"I'm not a prophet of doom but the violence on the outskirts of Tripoli is only the beginning of long and bloody war on the shore of the Mediterranean that will expose the security of direct neighbours and the broader Mediterranean region to the danger," said UN Envoy Ghassan Salame.
He warned that the realignment of rival forces across the Libyan divide to focus on the battle in Tripoli would create "a security vacuum which will be taken advantage of by [the Islamic State] and al-Qaeda."