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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 April 2019

Heavy fighting around Libyan capital as EU concerned by banned militants among defenders

Among those battling against the Libyan National Army are groups wanted for killing the 2012 killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens

Smoke plume rise from an air strike behind a tank and pickup trucks mounted with gun turrets belonging to forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord, during clashes in the suburb of Wadi Rabie about 30 kilometres south of the capital Tripoli. AFP
Smoke plume rise from an air strike behind a tank and pickup trucks mounted with gun turrets belonging to forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord, during clashes in the suburb of Wadi Rabie about 30 kilometres south of the capital Tripoli. AFP

The Libyan capital Tripoli shuddered on Saturday under heavy artillery bombardment and air strikes as Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army sought to break through opposition lines in the southern suburbs.

Fighting was concentrated on a broad swathe of the city, with LNA tank and infantry units probing for weak points against a front line held by an assortment of militias aligned to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

Photos and video circulating on social media show LNA tanks and jeeps bearing machine guns in action against militia strong points in densely packed parts of the city. Fighting was reportedly heaviest in an area around the former international airport in the south west of the city. Several kilometres east, an LNA jet was reported by eye-witnesses to have hit a militia base in the suburb of Tajoura.

A statement on the LNA’s Twitter account said offensives had been launched from seven points in a fresh attempt to capture the city in an offensive that began on April 4.

“For the 9th day, your Libyan Arab armed forces are advancing from seven main axes towards the capital to secure it and to defeat the terrorist and criminal militias that control the decision and financial hubs in Libya,” said the LNA statement. “Your forces are creating victory and crushing terrorism.”

On Friday, the LNA said: “our air force operations will increase in the coming hours.” That seemed to be a reference to air strikes on Friday against a militia base at Zuwara, west of Tripoli near the Tunisian border, and a strike at Tripoli’s city centre Mitiga airport. No details of casualties were reported.

On the front lines, the LNA is wrestling with the problem of battering its way through militia strongpoints. The city militias have blocked roads, including the main airport highway to the city centre, with earth ramparts and steel shipping containers.

Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker of Libya's (until Saturday) Tobruk-based House of Representatives which was elected in 2014, chairs the first session for the assembly at its new headquarters in the second city of Benghazi. AFP
Aguila Saleh Issa, speaker of Libya's (until Saturday) Tobruk-based House of Representatives which was elected in 2014, chairs the first session for the assembly at its new headquarters in the second city of Benghazi. AFP

Field Marshall Haftar is the armed forces commander for the House of Representatives parliament based

in eastern Libya, and on Saturday it formally moved location from Tobruk to Benghazi, eastern Libya’s biggest city. Opening the session, Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh voiced his support for the LNA Tripoli offensive saying that delayed elections could follow the capture of the capital. “We will be going to the polls after liberating Tripoli,” he said.

“We need to get rid of militias and terrorist groups,” Mr Saleh said. “We assure the residents of Tripoli that the campaign to liberate Tripoli will be limited and not violate any freedoms but restore security and fight terrorism."

The United Nations has made an appeal for elections central to its on-going Libya peace efforts, but its officials want such polls held without violence. On the diplomatic front, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Saturday repeated calls also made by the UN for a Tripoli ceasefire, warning “There is a serious risk that a humanitarian crisis mounts. A military option cannot be a solution.”

A complication for diplomats trying to negotiate a ceasefire is the presence, among the GNA militias, of leaders sanctioned for militant activities by the UN. The New York Times reported that these militias include the Benghazi Defence Brigades, units originally from the city of the same name, who include elements blamed by the United States for the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012.

A fighter looks through the scope of a rifle mounted through a murder hole at a position held by forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA). AFP
A fighter looks through the scope of a rifle mounted through a murder hole at a position held by forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA). AFP

The newspaper said two other militia commanders fighting on the side of the GNA are also on UN sanctions lists. The presence of such individuals is likely to complicate UN diplomatic support for the GNA.

On Thursday night, the European Union acknowledged the presence of the sanctioned militias, in a statement saying member states “express their concern at the involvement of terrorist and criminal elements in the fighting, including individuals listed by the UN Security Council.”

Supporters of Field Marshall Haftar say the objective of the Tripoli offensive is to defeat militias, restoring law and order to the city.

Amid a worsening humanitarian situation, World Health Organisation representative Dr Syed Jaffar Hussain said five ambulances had been hit in the fighting and warned the body had only stockpiled two weeks-worth of medical supplies in Tripoli. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is meanwhile trying to evacuate 1,500 migrants and refugees in detention centres near the front lines. “They must be urgently brought to safety,” said its spokesman Filippo Grandi. “Simply put, this is a matter of life or death.”

Updated: April 13, 2019 08:25 PM

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