Thousands displaced as Haftar's forces advance on Libya capital

Over 500,000 children deemed to be at 'immediate threat' as General Khalifa Haftar's forces continue push on Tripoli.

    At least 4,500 Tripoli residents have been displaced by fighting between Haftar's eastern forces and troops loyal to the GNA, according to the UN [LNA War Information Division via AFP]
    At least 4,500 Tripoli residents have been displaced by fighting between Haftar's eastern forces and troops loyal to the GNA, according to the UN [LNA War Information Division via AFP]

    Thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes in and around the Libyan capital because of fighting between eastern-based forces and troops loyal to the country's internationally recognised government.

    According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), at least 4,500 individuals have been displaced since the clashes erupted six days ago, when renegade General Khalifa Haftar ordered his forces to march on Tripoli.

    Many others remain trapped in their homes, UNOCHA added, with more than 500,000 children deemed to be at "immediate threat".

    At least 47 people, including nine civilians, have so far been killed, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

    As fighting continued on Wednesday, Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) took up positions some 11km south of the centre of the capital, which is protected by an array of militias and other groups loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Battle-hardened forces from the city of Misrata have also arrived in Tripoli to help in the fighting against the LNA.

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    Al Jazeera's Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli, said the situation in the southern suburbs of the capital remained very tense, with the warring sides vying to take control of the city's disused international airport.  

    "The situation in and around Tripoli's international airport is very tense after Haftar's forces managed to recapture the airport last night," Abdelwahed said on Wednesday. 

    The facility on Tripoli southern's edge has been abandoned since 2014 after being damaged during heavy clashes between rival armed groups. Meanwhile, the runway of the capital's only working airport - Mitiga, on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli - was targeted by Haftar's fighter jets on Monday.

    Fighting forces relocation of refugees

    The LNA's advance has escalated a power struggle that has splintered Libya into a patchwork of the competing power bases since the NATO-backed overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. In Tripoli, the GNA is headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, while in the eastern city of Tobruk there is a parallel, Haftar-allied administration.

    As fighting rages, rights groups and humanitarian organisations have also expressed deep concerns over the fate of thousands of refugees and migrants held in detention centres across Tripoli, including in active conflict zones.

    In its statement on Tuesday, UNOCHA said that "in light of current insecurity in Libya's capital ... [it] relocated more than 150 refugees from the Ain Zara detention centre in south Tripoli".

    It noted that the detention centre had been "impacted by heavy clashes in the past few days", and added that the refugees were now in a nearby "safe zone".

    Speaking to Al Jazeera on Friday, a refugee held at the Ain Zara detention centre said most of the guards in charge of them had left and food had run out.

    UN conference scrapped

    Libya, which has been in turmoil since the NATO-backed removal of longtime ruler Gaddafi, has two rival governments: 

    The UN had scheduled a three-day conference on April 14 in the southwestern town of Ghadames to discuss a constitutional framework for elections as a means of ending the North African country's eight-year political crisis.

    But on Tuesday, the UN's envoy for Libya announced the postponement of the summit.

    "We cannot ask people to take part in the conference during gunfire and air strikes," Ghassan Salame said, vowing to hold the event "as soon as possible ... on the day when conditions of its success are ensured."

    The UN, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a ceasefire, a return to the UN peace plan, and a halt to Haftar's push.

    Haftar, who casts himself as a foe of "extremism" but is viewed by opponents as a new authoritarian leader in the mould of Gaddafi, has vowed to continue his offensive until Libya is "cleansed" of "terrorism".

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies