Counteroffensive by GNA sees rival forces of eastern-based Khalifa Haftar withdraw to pre-April 2019 lines.
Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) has recaptured the strategic town of Bani Walid in the country’s northwest from the forces of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.
The latest development comes a day after the UN-recognised government seized the city of Tarhuna, Haftar’s last stronghold in northwestern Libya, which was used as the main launchpad against the capital, Tripoli. Friday’s defeat inflicts serious blows to Haftar’s 14-month offensive to capture Tripoli.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed said Bani Walid was handed over to the GNA peacefully.
“Life to a great extent is normal in Bani Walid,” he said, speaking from Tripoli. “The government forces entered the town without any fighting because of the cooperation of the elder’s council, the mayor and the civilians with the government forces.”
Haftar’s forces, he added, left the town before the GNA forces approached the northern borders of the town.
The GNA is now setting its sights on Sirte, the hometown of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and has announced a new offensive to recapture the city by deploying reinforcements around the Abu Grein area, Abdelwahed said.
“The military move on the city of Sirte came after peaceful talks to hand over the city failed,” he said. “We are also getting reports that the government air force in Abu Grein targeted UAE military-supplied vehicles for Haftar’s forces.”
In March, the Libyan government launched Operation Peace Storm to counter attacks on the capital and recently regained strategic locations, including the al-Watiya airbase, in the country’s west.
Turkey’s military support, particularly its drone force, to the GNA seems to have turned the tide against Haftar forces in recent months.
But analysts say the GNA’s military gains do not mark the end of Libya’s war but a return to the status quo before the launch of the Tripoli offensive last year.
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) still controls large swaths of territory in the east, where there is a parallel administration, and large parts of the south, where the main oil fields are located.
Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates and Russia have provided support for Haftar, but that backing has been outweighed in recent months by Turkish military backing for the GNA.
Hundreds of people have been killed and another 200,000 driven from their homes since Haftar launched his assault last April, pledging to “cleanse” the capital of the “terrorist militias” he said.
On Saturday, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced a new initiative for Libya alongside Haftar and Aguila Saleh, the leader of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which proposes an elected leadership council and a ceasefire starting on June 8.
Sisi said the initiative included a call for negotiations in Geneva and the exit of all foreign fighters from Libya.
Speaking from Cairo, Haftar said the LNA will “expel the mercenaries from Libya in order to achieve the hopes and aspirations of the Libyan people to have a new day of prosperity”.
“The Libyan army is trying to restore the country,” Haftar said. “We need to expel Turkey from Libya. The Turkish intervention in Libya will seek to increase the polarisation in our country within the framework of supporting the non-constitutional government of accord with more weapons and mercenaries.”
“This will also increase polarization in the region around Libya,” he added. “This will prolong the conflict and will not lead to ways to sort out the problems and will postpone the hopes of building a new Libyan country.”
For his part, Saleh said the task of the LNA is to fight the “terrorist groups” and to get rid of the militias.
“We have taken a step backwards in order to stop fighting and we accepted the truce but until now the other party has not committed itself to the truce,” he said, referring to the GNA.
“I urge the Libyans to forget about the past, and for the political powers and others to take a step backwards in order to deal together as Libyans,” he continued. “I wish all the Libyans will cooperate with each other in order to get rid of this crisis with the support of Egypt and its president.”