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On Sunday, the conflict in Libya began to escalate as U.N.-backed forces announced a counteroffensive to defend the capitol from rebel forces. These forces, led by strongman Khalifa Haftar, had announced a successful first air strike in a suburb of Tripoli, leading to the response from the U.N.
Haftar’s forces, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) made the announcement via a Facebook page, as fighting raged 50 kilometers south of Tripoli, according to a report from France 24. Haftar’s forces aim to overthrow the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and take over the capitol, Tripoli. As of now, the attack has reportedly killed one person.
Colonel Mohamed Gnounou of the U.N.-backed forces claimed the counteroffensive had been aimed at “purging all Libyan cities of aggressor and illegitimate forces,” according to Al Jazeera.
The offensive launched by Haftar’s forces, which in turn spurred the counteroffensive and nearly tipped the country into a full-blown civil war, occurred last Thursday, despite urges against it by the international community. The U.N. had called for an urgent two-hour truce, in order to allow for the evacuation of civilians and wounded. And as reported by Al Jazeera, after a brief pause overnight, the fighting has once again flared in the farmland region of Wadi Raba, leading to the destruction of an airport along with at least 35 casualties, including civilians from both sides.
Haftar had made ground in the past by striking deals with many of the armed factions around Tripoli, but their ultimate goal — the capital itself — is more heavily defended. Many groups, particularly those who have a history of fighting Gaddafi, have moved into Tripoli to join defend the city.
The oil-rich country has been highly unstable since 2011, when the dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, sparking the beginning of the Arab Spring movement and political disruption across the region. The removal of Gaddafi had created a political vacuum in the country, leaving dozens of militias to vie for power; either allying with the GNA or another a rival administration backed by Haftar. Hafter, who had previously served in Gaddafi’s army, launched his attack, but was then halted at Checkpoint 27, known as “Gate 27”, 45 kilometers away from Tripoli by anti-Haftar forces, resulting in 120 LNA fighters being taken prisoner.
Although the move has been hailed as a major setback by some, the offence has shocked the international community, and turned more scrutiny towards the conflict. The U.S. has announced that they will temporarily remove forces from the country due to “increased unrest”, according to France 24. In a statement, the Marine Corps Gen., Thomas Waldhauser, the head of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), stated, “The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable.”
Indeed, many analysts agree that the country is teetering on the brink of a protracted civil war. Haftar had launched his offensive on the city while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had been in the capitol to help plan a national reconciliation conference between rival Libyan factions. Since then, the Security Council has called on Haftar to halt his advance, with Envoy Ghassan Salame insisting the U.N. had been “determined” to go ahead with the peace conference.
The conference could be a major step forward in deterring a civil war, and the international community must continue to exert pressure on Haftar as well as provide support for forces in Tripoli holding off the LNA’s assault. Moves to building a coalition to provide much-needed stability and to adequately fill the vacuum left post-2011 are critical in order to keep Libya from falling into a state of turmoil.