Renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) said on Wednesday that it was pulling back from all Tripoli front lines, calling into question their ability to sustain a year-long offensive aimed at seizing the capital.
The LNA announced overnight it was withdrawing 2-3km (1-2 miles) to ease conditions for Tripoli residents at the end of Ramadan, but the move follows the loss on Monday of a key airbase.
The eastern forces’ setbacks underscore the shifting dynamics of the conflict since Turkey intensified its intervention in January, to help the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) stave off Haftar’s assault.
Libya has been split since 2014 between rival factions based in Tripoli and in the east, in a sometimes-chaotic war that has drawn in outside powers and a flood of foreign arms and mercenaries.
Backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt, the LNA still holds all of eastern Libya and much of the south, including most oil facilities, but its presence in the northwest, where Libya’s population is concentrated, has come under intense pressure.
The GNA last month took a string of small towns linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border. On Monday, it took al-Watiya, the LNA’s only airbase near Tripoli and a significant strategic prize. On Tuesday, it took three small towns to the southwest.
On Wednesday morning, clashes rocked Asaba, south of Tripoli, while rockets struck the LNA’s most important stronghold in the region, the town of Tarhouna, a witness told Reuters News Agency.
Last month, GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said capturing Tarhouna would end Haftar’s campaign to seize Tripoli, but that the fighting in the capital was the priority.
The LNA military source told Reuters that in Tripoli the LNA had completed a gradual withdrawal from the Salahedin battlefront, one of the main theatres of fighting in the capital.
Residential areas, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in Tripoli have been bombarded frequently for months.
Calls for de-escalation
Meanwhile on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron discussed their concern about the “worsening foreign interference” in Libya and “agreed on the need for urgent de-escalation,” the White House said.
Addressing the Security Council on Tuesday, the UN’s acting Libya envoy warned of a new escalation in the conflict and urged pressure on countries backing the warring sides.
However, diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political settlement have made little headway, as more foreign fighters and weapons systems have poured in despite months of near impasse following Haftar’s initial offensive last year.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, his supporters, the UAE and Russia, issued separate calls for a ceasefire and political solution to the conflict.
Previous ceasefires have been short-lived, and the GNA has accused the LNA and its allies of using truces to build up military supplies and prepare for new attacks.
At al-Watiya, the GNA says it seized a Russian-made Pantsir air defence system supplied to the LNA by the UAE. It says it has put several others out of action with air raids in recent days, which the LNA has denied.
Turkish drones and air defences appear to have played a key role in GNA advances in recent weeks, with repeated claims of attacks on LNA supply chains from the east.
Ankara’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday that as a result of Turkish training and advice “the balance in Libya changed significantly”.