Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

UN chief urges ceasefire to avert 'bloody battle' for Tripoli

Thousands of people have fled their homes in Tripoli, while others are trapped in conflict areas

A Libyan fighter loyal to the Government of National Accord fires a machine gun at forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar south of Tripoli, on April 10, 2019. AFP
A Libyan fighter loyal to the Government of National Accord fires a machine gun at forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar south of Tripoli, on April 10, 2019. AFP

The UN chief warned Libya is on the brink of "a very dangerous situation" as forces loyal to the internationally recognised government and the rival Libyan National Army battle for control of the capital.

Thousands of people have fled heavy fighting on the outskirts of Tripoli that has left dozens dead and prompted mounting global alarm.

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Wednesday appealed for a halt to hostilities to prevent the situation spiralling out of control.

"It's still time to stop," he told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council in a closed session in New York.

"It's still time for a ceasefire to take place, for a cessation of hostilities to take place, and to avoid the worst, which would be a dramatic, bloody battle for Tripoli."

Nearly a week of fighting on the city's doorstep has already killed 56 people and wounded 266, the World Health Organisation said.

"Thousands of people have fled their homes, while others are trapped in conflict areas. Hospitals inside and outside [Tripoli] are receiving daily casualties," it said.

The UN chief was in Libya when forces loyal to military commmander Khalifa Hafta last week launched an offensive to capture the capital, which is controlled by a UN-backed government and an array of militias.

Haftar backs a rival administration based in eastern Libya that refuses to recognise the authority of the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Al Sarraj.

Mr Guterres said Libya was facing a "very dangerous situation" and urged a halt to the fighting to allow political negotiations to start anew.

"It is very clear for me that we need to restart a serious political dialogue and a serious political negotiation but it is obvious that cannot take place without a full stop to the hostilities," he said.

The council met for more than two hours behind closed doors to consider how to address the fresh fighting that has derailed efforts to end instability that has been exploited by Islamic militants and people-smugglers.

The United Nations postponed a national conference that was to open on Sunday to draw up a roadmap to elections, meant to turn the page on years of turmoil since the NATO-backed overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Heavy clashes shook Ain Zara, a town dotted with farms on the southeastern outskirts of Tripoli where pro-GNA fighters managed to reverse an advance by Field Marshal Haftar's forces.

On the town's main street, lined with shops and houses, a sand barrier erected by pro-GNA forces separated the two camps.

"Today, the criminals of Haftar's group have advanced, but we destroyed a tank and two armoured vehicles," said a pro-GNA fighter who gave his name as Youssef.

"The situation is good now," he said.

Behind him, artillery fire stirred up a cloud of sand as the sound of machine guns and anti-aircraft guns rang out.

Suddenly a shell sliced through the air and hit a nearby house.

"You see, he [Haftar] wants to destroy our houses and all of Tripoli," one of the fighters shouted.

Field Marshal Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls swathes of the country's east, said on Wednesday it had seized a barracks in the Aziziya area around 50 kilometres south of Tripoli after "ferocious clashes".

It said several fighters loyal to the UN-backed government had been detained and their weapons seized.

"For the moment, it's still a game of cat and mouse," said a commander from a pro-GNA group.

"We're still organising ourselves. The war hasn't truly started," he told AFP in Ain Zara.

Heavy arms fire was heard from the front line about 10 kilometres away where the city's disused international airport has changed hands several times over the past week.

Field Marshal Haftar's forces appear to be advancing on two fronts, from the south and southeast of Tripoli, while coast roads to the east and west of the city are defended by fighters loyal to the GNA.

The commander, whose key allies are the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, is a former Gaddafi military chief who has emerged as a major player in Libya's political struggle.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was "deeply concerned by the situation in Libya."

"The current military operation and advance on Tripoli are increasing the suffering of the Libyan people and putting civilian lives at risk," he said.

The UN children's agency said "nearly half a million children in Tripoli and tens of thousands more in the western areas are at a direct risk due to the intensification of fighting".

Although casualties remain limited so far, the International Crisis Group warned further escalation "could precipitate a humanitarian disaster".

"If unleashed, a full-fledged offensive could become a proxy war between regional powers and cause innumerable casualties as well as immense devastation," it said.

Updated: April 11, 2019 02:06 PM