x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Libya's NTC battles on, buoyed by UN backing

The country's seat at the United Nations has been handed to the governing council, as rebel forces push farther into Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte.

NEAR SIRTE // Forces of Libya's new leadership battled diehard remnants of the fallen regime of Moammar Qaddafi on Saturday, after the UN eased sanctions and assigned its seat at the world body to the former rebels.

National Transitional Council forces swept further into Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte as at least 6,000 fighters battled in and around one of the ousted despot's final strongholds.

Commander Salem Jeha, a member of Misrata Military Council, told AFP at the Gate 30 checkpoint west of Sirte: "We are now concentrated in a handful of buildings in the city and on the outskirts including Wadi Abu Hadi where Qaddafi's forces are concentrated."

He said NTC combatants seized Sirte airport late on Friday, and added that there was "no possibility for them (Qaddafi's forces) to continue their resistance."

Western nations that were at the forefront of the push for sanctions and help for the rebels hailed the "historic" double breakthrough at the UN for the NTC.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement it showed the international community's determination to support a "free future" for Libya.

The 15-member Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on Friday to ease an assets freeze and arms embargo against Libyan companies and the new government.

It maintained sanctions against Qaddafi and a no-fly zone which has been used to justify NATO air strikes against forces loyal to the fallen strongman.

Security Council resolution 2009 also established the UN Support Mission in Libya -- UNSMIL -- a UN mission to go to Libya to help the interim government arrange elections and write a new constitution.

The resolution eases sanctions against major enterprises such as the Libyan National Oil Corporation, the central bank and the Libyan Investment Authority sovereign wealth fund in a bid to kick-start the economy.

The Security Council also expressed concern at the "proliferation of arms in Libya and its potential impact on regional peace and security."

However, the resolution allows arms supplies and technical assistance to the transitional government for the security of the authorities and for the protection of UN personnel, media and aid workers in Libya.

The Security Council passed resolutions in February and March allowing for sanctions and measures to protect civilians, which NATO has used to justify its military strikes in Libya over the past six months.

While agreeing to keep the no-fly zone in place, Russia's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin demanded that it be quickly reviewed, renewing accusations that NATO has acted outside the UN resolutions.

Earlier, the UN General Assembly voted by 114 countries to 17, with 15 abstentions, to let the interim government take up Libya's UN seat.

But the UN vote allows interim government leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil to attend next week's UN gathering of world leaders in New York. Jalil is to meet US President Barack Obama and other key figures on the sidelines of the General Assembly.

Some 90 countries now recognise the NTC, whose leaders moved to Tripoli this week.

While the former rebels have gained a major political victory, their complete dominance of the battlefield has yet to happen.

Truckloads of ammunition could be seen heading towards the front at the Gate 30 checkpoint west of Sirte on Saturday, along with more pick-ups bearing fighters and anti-aircraft guns.

Jeha said there were some 1,200 NTC armed vehicles plus the thousands of fighters, mostly from Misrata, in the Sirte area.

"There may be houses and pockets of resistance, but they will not be able to overcome the rebels' massive forces," he said, adding that he had received reports that half of the city's civilians had fled.

The attacking fighters were trying to prevent civilian loss of life and were not seeking revenge: "We are not using heavy weapons except to protect our rebels when they are targeted."

Jeha added: "This matter is sealed, it's over. Our focus will now shift to free the south."

NATO said in an operational update on Saturday warplanes dealt "key hits" on 20 targets in the Sirte area the previous day.

They included five command and controle nodes, three radar systems, four armed vehicles and eight air missile systems.

Columns of NTC fighters backed by tanks launched an early morning assault on Sirte on Friday, a day after a first attack was repulsed.

The NTC said its fighters had also entered the oasis town of Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli, but they made a "tactical withdrawal" in the evening due to sniper fire.

In Tripoli, meanwhile, an NTC official said a new government to be announced on Sunday would consist of 30 members and be representative of all political groups and regions, and that women would be included.