Tensions in Libya have worsened as General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced on the capital over the weekend. The violence was concentrated in the southern suburbs of Tripoli and the former international airport, which the rebel forces claim to have seized. The LNA launched their first airstrike of the battle, following the air raids of the United Nations (UN)-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) on Saturday, 6 April.
Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj accused Haftar of attempting a coup, and his GNA forces responded to the airstrike with force, demonstrating their determination to foil all attacks by the LNA. A spokesman for the GNA, Colonel Mohammed Gnounou, said on Sunday that a counter-offensive was launched to push the LNA troops back to “purge all Libyan cities of aggressor and illegitimate forces.”
The UN Mission to Libya called for an urgent two-hour truce to allow for the evacuation of civilians and wounded from Tripoli’s southern suburbs on Sunday, but the fighting continued. This meant emergency services were not able to enter the areas where the attack was taking place. The Health Ministry in Tripoli said at least 21 people were killed and 27 were wounded during the fighting, including a Red Crescent doctor.
Libya has been divided into various armed groups since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Haftar, who is viewed by his opponents as a new dictator similar to Gaddafi, has portrayed himself as a bulwark against militant Islamists and has claimed he will not cease until terrorism is defeated. He has received military backing from Egypt, France, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE, however, has joined Western countries in expressing deep concern about the fresh fighting.
The G7 countries condemned the fighting and have urged all parties to “immediately halt all military action.” Similar calls for a ceasefire have been made by the UN Security Council and the foreign ministers of various countries. Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi said Haftar must heed international warnings to halt his advance on Tripoli or else “we will see what can be done.” The G7 also threatened to respond with possible international action. However, all calls for a humanitarian truce have been ignored.
The attack has taken the UN by surprise to some degree, as it undermines the plan to stage a conference on April 14-16 to find agreement on how to hold elections and resolve the ongoing instability in the country. Haftar’s defiance suggests that despite international condemnation and peaceful recommendations, he believes he can only secure himself a place in Libya’s political landscape through offensive military methods. UN envoy Ghassan Salame maintained that the UN is striving to prevent the new crisis from getting out of control and will continue to work towards political reconciliation. “We have worked for one year for this national conference, we won’t give up this political work quickly,” he said.
Multiple international powers have begun evacuating personnel from Libya as a result of the worsening security. The United States have withdrawn some of their troops, as has India with their Central Reserve Police Force peacekeepers. The UN is also to withdraw all non-essential staff.
It remains unclear at this stage whether Haftar’s forces have the adequate means to acquire Tripoli. It is clear, however, as stated by Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, head of US Africa Command, that “the security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable.”