As clashes break out near Tripoli, alarm grows over danger of major escalation in Libya’s years-long power struggle.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the G7 are calling on troops loyal to Libya’s renegade General Khalifa Haftar to “halt” their military advance on Tripoli as clashes near the capital prompted concerns of a wider escalation in the North African country.
Militias loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli say they captured more than 100 of Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) fighters west of the capital on Friday.
Fighting was reported on Friday night into Saturday morning near Tripoli’s international airport, about 30km south of the city.
After a closed-door emergency meeting, the UNSC warned that those responsible for reigniting the conflict would be held to account.
The UNSC “called on LNA forces to halt all military movements” and “on all forces to de-escalate military activity,” said German Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who holds the council presidency.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who was in the Libyan capital to help organise a conference aimed at hammering out a plan for elections, held a series of meetings on Thursday and Friday with senior officials including Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Haftar.
But he wrote on Twitter on Friday: “I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli.”
Al Jazeera’s Mike Hannah at the UN said Guterres’s meeting with Haftar did not go well.
“Haftar reportedly said he was confident and defiant and the characterisation of the meeting was that Haftar insisted he was not going to back down.”
Rights group Human Rights Watch called on all forces to abide by the laws of war. “Armed groups loyal to both sides have a record of abusing civilians,” it said in a statement on Saturday.
“Fighters led by General Khalifa Haftar, known as the Libyan National Army (LNA), have a well-documented record of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, summary executions of captured fighters, and arbitrary detention,” it said.
“Militias affiliated with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and based in western Libya also have a record of abuses against civilians.”
The military escalation threatens to undermine UN-led efforts to bring stability to a country that has for years been split between the internationally recognised GNA in Tripoli and a rival administration in the east allied to Haftar.
The 75-year-old former army officer’s rise, including advances on strategic oil fields and port cities, has come on the back of support by countries such as neighbouring Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
He has portrayed himself as the only solution for Libya’s instability, but many in the country fear he could try to reinstate authoritarian rule.
After decades of exile in the United States, Haftar returned to Libya in 2011 to take part in the uprising against longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi. In the years that followed Gaddafi’s removal and killing, various armed groups vied for control in of the oil-rich country.
Amidst the chaos, Haftar launched in 2014 Operation Dignity to “cleanse” the country of what he called “terrorist” militias.
In July 2017, Haftar said his forces had seized Benghazi after a bloody three-year battle. Last year, the LNA gained control of Derna, the last bastion of opposition against Haftar in the east of the country.
Then, in January this year, he launched a new offensive into oil-rich Fezzan in Libya’s southwest. The LNA made deals with the local tribes and overran the region without a major fight.
Haftar’s “ultimate goal when he went into Fezzan was to take Tripoli,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute.
“You cannot rule Libya unless you control Tripoli. Because all the money, diplomatic missions and most of the population is there – everything is concentrated there.”
Stunned by LNA’s southern advance, the UN scrambled to mediate between Haftar and al-Serraj, the head of the GNA. The pair met in Abu Dhabi in February, and the UN said they had agreed to hold elections by the end of the year.
In March, the UN’s mission in Libya announced that a national conference would be held on April 14 to 16 to discuss a timetable for long-delayed elections and unify the country.
Harchaoui said Haftar agreed to the election plan to buy more time for his long-promised offensive on Tripoli.
“Haftar used UN diplomacy to make military progress. His aim is to change the facts on the ground to his political advantage.”