In apparent reversal of US policy, Trump praises Haftar for fighting ‘terrorism’ and securing Libya’s oil resources.
Heavy clashes broke out in the southern districts of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, as forces loyal to the country’s UN-recognised government launched a counterattack to repel fighters allied to renegade General Khalifa Haftar.
Residents of the city said they could hear sustained rocket and artillery fire in several districts of Tripoli on Saturday, after several days of stalemate on the ground.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which is allied to a rival administration in the country’s east, launched an offensive to seize Tripoli more than two weeks ago, but it has been stopped in the city’s southern outskirts by forces allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The shelling was louder and more frequent on Saturday than in previous days, residents said, and audible in central districts more than 10km away from the front line.
Both sides claimed progress in southern Tripoli, but no more details were immediately available.
Mustafa al-Mejii, a spokesman for the GNA’s military operation, said his forces “have launched a new phase of attack”.
“Orders were given early this morning to advance and gain ground,” he told the AFP news agency.
Colonel Mohamad Gnounou, another spokesman, said Tripoli-allied forces carried out seven air raids against military positions held by Haftar’s LNA. They included areas south of the city of Gharyan, 100km southwest of the capital, and an airbase at Al-Watiya, 50km further southwest.
Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesman for Haftar’s forces, said Tripoli-allied forces attacked the airbase three times on Saturday.
Speaking to reporters in Benghazi, Mesmari confirmed attacks on Gharyan, saying civilians had been targeted.
“Our airforce is providing fire support to troops on the ground,” he said, adding: “The enemy is trying to flank our forces from the back, but they have failed in the face of the strength of our fighters and the experience of our fighters. It’s become a war of attrition.”
Fighting on Tripoli’s outskirts has killed at least 220 people and wounded more than 1,000 others, according to the World Health Organization, while the International Organization for Migration said more than 25,000 people have been displaced.
The offensive, which Haftar said was aimed at cleansing Libya’s western region of “remaining terrorist groups”, has raised fears of a full-blown civil war in the oil-rich country, which has been mired in chaos since the NATO-backed toppling of long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
For years now, Libya has been split between the Tripoli-based GNA in the west and a rival administration in the east allied to Haftar.
Saturday’s clashes were “the fiercest fighting yet”, said Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli. GNA-allied forces “say they have gained more ground against Haftar’s forces, and are determined to re-take control of Tripoli’s unused international airport,” he said.
While GNA forces claim Haftar’s fighters were on the retreat, the battle would not be easy, Abdelwahed said, “because Haftar’s forces are supported by regional powers, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates”.
A phone call between President Donald Trump and Haftar on Monday, in which the United States leader praised the commander’s “significant role in fighting terrorism” was likely to have emboldened the LNA further, said Abdelwahed.
The US and Russia declined on Thursday to support a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya. Moscow said it objected to the British-drafted resolution blaming Haftar for the latest flare-up in violence, and the US did not give a reason for its decision.
Meanwhile, about 2,000 residents of Tripoli staged a protest in the city’s central Martyrs’ Square on Friday to condemn Haftar’s push on the city as well as world powers that back him, which they say include France and Russia, and now the US.
“The powers that support terrorism in Libya are France, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Abdelrizaq Musherib, a protester.
“We condemn the criminal acts against the Libyan people and the support for the rebel Haftar. We also condemn the United Nations mission, because of their inability to handle the Libya situation,” he added.
Nour Mohamed said the US wants Haftar to take over Libya. “We, the Libyan people, are against Trump and against Haftar. We want civilian rule and freedom.”
The French embassy in Libya tweeted in Arabic on Friday that Paris was “opposed to the attack” on Tripoli. The foreign ministers of France and Italy also said they are trying to forge a common strategy on Libya.