Tripoli government agrees to ceasefire talks after LNA retakes key town

Libyan National Army forces seized control of the strategic town of al-Asabaa.
Tuesday 02/06/2020
A file picture shows supporters of Libyan National Army (LNA) celebrate on top of a captured Turkish military armoured vehicle, last January in Benghazi. (Reuters)
A file picture shows supporters of Libyan National Army (LNA) celebrate on top of a captured Turkish military armoured vehicle, last January in Benghazi. (Reuters)

TRIPOLI - The United Nations said Libya's warring factions have agreed to resume ceasefire talks following days of heavy fighting that saw the Libyan National Army (LNA) retake a key town from its rivals.

The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) had been largely dismissive of any truce proposal or talks with the LNA since recapturing the strategic airbase of al-Watiya in Libya's northwest on May 18 with the help of Turkish military support. But recent development on the ground seem to have changed its mind.

On Monday, LNA forces seized control of the strategic town of al-Asabaa, about 50km south of the capital, after launching airstrikes on militias in the area and despite Turkish drone intervention, according to LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari. Their troops were chasing Tripoli-allied forces to their stronghold in the nearby town of Gharyan, he added.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said it hoped the new round of talks would “mark the beginning of calm on the ground," especially to allow the country's war-scarred health system to cope with a coronavirus outbreak.

Delegates from the rival camps will conduct talks through video calls because of the pandemic, the UN Mission said in the announcement late Monday.

A military commission made up of five GNA loyalists and five LNA delegates held talks in February, but the dialogue was suspended.

The UN mission urged "states backing either of the belligerents to respect what was agreed at the Berlin conference" in late January, where world leaders committed to ending all foreign meddling in Libya and to uphold a much-violated arms embargo.

UNSMIL also voiced hopes that the resumption of talks by the joint military commission would be "the start of a truce on the ground and a humanitarian truce to provide the opportunity to reach a final ceasefire deal."

A statement for the Turkish-backed GNA did not acknowledge the defeat in al-Asabaa. But two Tripoli officials speaking on condition of anonymity told reporters their troops lost the town after heavy shelling and airstrikes by eastern forces.

Control of the town gives the LNA better access to Tarhuna, their main western stronghold and supply line southeast of the capital.

The LNA's gain more broadly reflects the seesawing nature of the war. It also shows that claims made by the Tripoli government and Ankara that the balance of power had completely shifted in their favour after their retaking of al-Watiya airbase were premature.

Informed Libyan sources and statements by the LNA’s spokesman confirmed that LNA forces had taken control of al-Asabaa and set their sights on Gharyan. Sources told The Arab Weekly that the latter will soon fall under the LNA's control.

On Monday, the army launched a series of air strikes targeting militia locations in the city of Gharyan, where Mismari said militias began withdrawing to after they were defeated in al-Asabaa. “Units of the armed forces were able to retake the area of ​​Al-Asabea (...), following a series of air strikes on militia sites in the Western Mountain,” he added.

Mismari said many Libyan and Syrian militia leaders have been killed in recent battles.

Brigadier General Ahmed al-Mismari, spokesman of the Libyan National Army (LNA). (AFP)
Brigadier General Ahmed al-Mismari, spokesman of the Libyan National Army (LNA). (AFP)

Observers believe the LNA is now trying to regain its balance and momentum in the western region, which would ease the siege on Tarhuna and other fronts south of Tripoli.

Observers believe that merely attacking Gharyan, which the LNA lost nearly a year ago, discredits the victory celebrations by the Turkish-GNA camp.

But taking control of the city of Gharyan will not be an easy task for the LNA. The rival GNA has improved and reinforced the armament of the city’s militias since retaking it in June last year.

Gharyan, about 100km from Tripoli, previously served as the command centre of operations and starting point for the LNA's advance on Tripoli. Its loss by the LNA marked the beginning of a series of setbacks for the army.

The city’s fall cut off the LNA’s major supply lines to its advanced battle posts and fronts, especially the Tripoli Airport, Khallet Al-Furjan, Salahuddin, Ain Zara, and Wadi al-Rabi.

Turkey and the GNA are racing against time to drive the LNA out of its concentrations south of Tripoli, where militia-backed Syrian mercenaries launched a sweeping attack more than 8 days ago.

The militias are betting on gaining control of the Qasr Bin Ghashir area, which, if taken, will accelerate the collapse of the other fronts, but their attacks have been met with fierce resistance from LNA forces, despite the absence of air cover due to the air defence systems installed by Turkey in Tripoli.

Libya plunged into chaos following the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Two competing forces have since emerged to vie for control of the war-torn country: The GNA in the west, which relies on Islamist militias backed by Turkey and Qatar, and a parallel government in the east loyal to the LNA, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the internationally recognised Tobruk-based parliament.

Since April of last year, the LNA has launched a an offensive to take Tripoli. But over the past year the conflict has been exacerbated by increased foreign interference. Egypt and Russia support Haftar while Turkey has intervened militarily alongside GNA forces.

The international community is trying to stop the fighting and resume the political process. US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft called on “third parties to stop fuelling the conflict in Libya.”

“We demand that Member States comply with their obligations to implement the UN arms embargo. This entails an immediate and permanent halt of all deployments of personnel, fighters, and military equipment to Libya,” the US diplomat said.

Craft's statement came in the wake of an American escalation against what Washington considers growing Russian involvement in the Libyan crisis, amid fears that Libya will become a strategic stronghold for Moscow.

On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke with GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj by phone on the “necessity” of reviving the ceasefire and the “political process” between the two competing authorities in Libya.

French President Emmanuel Macron held consultations Saturday with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, one of Haftar's most prominent supporters, on “enhancing coordination between the two countries” with the aim of helping settle the conflict in Libya, according to the Egyptian presidency.