Mortars land on Tripoli suburb as two-week battle rages on

Members of Libyan internationally recognised government forces look for cover during the fighting with Eastern forces at Al-Swani area in Tripoli, Libya April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Hani Amara and Ahmed Elumami

AL-SUANI, Libya (Reuters) – Mortars crashed down on a suburb of Tripoli on Thursday, almost hitting a clinic and adding to people’s suffering after two weeks of an offensive by eastern troops on the Libyan capital, which is held by an internationally recognized government.

The shelling came a day after seven people were killed when Grad rockets hit a densely populated district of Tripoli, which the eastern Libyan forces of commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to take, deepening the chaos that has plagued the oil-producing nation since 2011.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) of Benghazi-based Haftar has become bogged down in the southern suburbs of the capital.

In al-Suani, a southwestern suburb, Reuters reporters saw two mortars almost hitting a clinic. The fighting has killed 205 people, including 18 civilians, and wounded 913 since the start of the campaign, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday.

Locals blamed Haftar’s forces for the shelling, saying the rockets had been fired from the direction of his positions south of the capital.

“We say to the United Nations and the Security Council: listen. Listen to the bombing… Rockets are coming down on us. For this reason, please find a solution for us,” said Youssef Salem, a displaced man from al-Suani.

The LNA has denied shelling residential areas.

The Tripoli government issued arrest warrants for Haftar and other top eastern officials, blaming them for Wednesday’s shelling.

Eastern officials have already issued arrest warrants for Tripoli premier Fayez al-Serraj and other western officials as there is no sign of a political solution or even of a ceasefire.

Foreign powers are worried but unable to present a united front over the latest flare-up in the cycle of anarchy and warfare that has gripped Libya since dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

The internationally recognized interior ministry accused France of supporting Haftar and said it would halt security cooperation with Paris.

“Any dealings with the French side in bilateral security agreements” will halt, the Tripoli-based interior ministry said in a statement.

A French presidential source said in response to the accusation that France supported the internationally recognized government in Tripoli and that Emmanuel Macron’s legitimate interlocutor was Serraj, with whom he spoke on Monday and reaffirmed that.

The French government was not immediately available for comment.

France has helped train Serraj’s presidential guard and in October 2013 signed a deal between a consultancy of the French interior ministry and the Libyan interior ministry to train 1,000 police.

Most recently in February, France provided the Tripoli government with six patrol boats for its coastline.

Paris has given Haftar support in the past, however, viewing him as the best bet to end the chaos that has reigned since a NATO-backed rebellion to end Gaddafi’s murderous four-decade rule.

Italy, with considerable oil interests in the OPEC member, supports the Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and was furious with French reluctance to back a recent European Union resolution urging Haftar to halt his advance.

The conflict threatens to disrupt oil flows, foment migration across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, and allow jihadists to exploit the chaos.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who view him as an anchor to restore stability and combat Islamist militants.

His forces came under attack on Thursday by an armed group at the Tamanhint base near the main southern city of Sabha.

The LNA managed to expel the attack, which killed two of its soldiers, an eastern official said. But it exposed a vulnerability as Haftar has moved much of its forces north.

The identity of the attackers was not immediately clear.

The LNA force seized earlier this year the south and its two oilfields, although tribesmen with flexible loyalties remain strong in the sparsely populated desert region.

On the weekend, the LNA dispatched a unit to the eastern oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider to prepare for a possible attack there.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli, Ahmed Elumami, Ulf Laessing, John Irish and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Hugh Lawson)

U.N. Security Council considers demanding Libya ceasefire

FILE PHOTO: Libya's eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar attends General Security conference, in Benghazi, Libya, October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Security Council is considering a British-drafted resolution that would demand a ceasefire in Libya and call on all countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance.

Diplomats from the 15-member council are due to meet later on Tuesday to discuss the text that also calls for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya, which has been gripped by anarchy and conflict since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

The latest flare-up began almost two weeks ago – during a visit to the country by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – when eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced to the outskirts of the capital Tripoli.

Haftar’s forces predicted victory within days, but Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally-recognized government has managed to bog them down in southern suburbs with help from armed groups from various western Libyan factions.

The Security Council informally expressed concern on April 5, calling on all forces to de-escalate and halt military activity and specifically calling out the LNA.

However, in the following days the council was unable to issue a more formal statement, diplomats said, as Russia objected to a reference to the LNA, while the United States said it could not agree a text that did not mention Haftar’s forces.

The draft U.N. Security Council resolution, seen by Reuters, expresses “grave concern at military activity in Libya near Tripoli, which began following the launching of a military offensive by the LNA … and threatens the stability of Libya.”

It also demands that all parties in Libya immediately de-escalate the situation, commit to a ceasefire, and engage with the United Nations to end hostilities.

Diplomats said the draft text could be put to a vote as early as this week. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by the United States, Britain, France, Russia or China to pass.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who view him as an anchor to restore stability and combat Islamist militants, while western powers support Serraj.

The draft U.N. text “calls upon all member states to use their influence to ensure compliance with this resolution.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

East Libyan warplanes hit Tripoli government positions

Troops from eastern Libyan forces are seen in Ain Zara, south of Tripoli, Libya April 11, 2019. Picture taken April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

By Ulf Laessing and Ahmed Elumami

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Eastern Libyan forces bogged down in street battles in a push to seize the capital Tripoli deployed warplanes on Friday to hit several government positions, as more civilians fled the fighting.

More than 1,000 people gathered in central Tripoli to demand that Khalifa Haftar stop the advance of his Libyan National Army (LNA) on the coastal city of about 1.2 million people.

Haftar launched the campaign a week ago, in the latest conflict in a cycle of anarchy since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

But forces loyal to Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally recognized government have so far kept them at bay, with fierce fighting around a disused former airport about 11 km (7 miles) from the center.

On Friday, an LNA warplane bombed the camp of a force allied to Serraj in Zuwara, west of Tripoli toward the Tunisian border, an LNA military source and residents said.

Zuwara is near the Mellitah oil and gas plant, jointly operated by Italy’s ENI and state oil firm NOC, which supplies Italy with gas through the Greenstream pipeline.

An LNA warplane also attacked the only partly-functioning airport in Tripoli, Mitiga, where anti-aircraft opened fire in response, witnesses said. The extent of damage and possible casualties in both places was not clear.

A week of battles has killed 75 people – mainly fighters but also 17 civilians – and wounded another 323, according to latest U.N. tallies. Some 9,500 people have also been forced out of their homes.

As the sound of fighting echoed around their city, residents sought to maintain some normality on Friday.

Some families were eating in cafes next to the fish market where people were stocking up for the weekend.

“We have got used to wars. I fear only in God,” said Yamim Ahmed, 20, who works in a fast food restaurant.

More than 1,000 people staged a protest in Martyrs Square in central Tripoli to demand an end to the offensive, witnesses said. The turnout was bigger than last Friday.

As well as the humanitarian cost, the conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, increase migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, scupper a U.N. peace plan, and allow Islamist militants to exploit the chaos.

CITY STALEMATE

Haftar, 75, a former general in Gaddafi’s army who later joined the revolt against him, moved his troops out of their eastern stronghold to take the oil-rich, desert south earlier this year, before sweeping up to Tripoli at the start of April.

But Serraj’s government has managed to halt for now the advance, helped by forces with machine-guns on pickups and steel containers across the road into Tripoli. The Tripoli government says it has taken nearly 200 prisoners from Haftar’s forces.

The United Nations, which had hoped to organize a national conference this month bringing the rival eastern and western administrations together to organize an election, has called for a ceasefire. The United States, G7 bloc of wealthy nations and European Union have also urged the LNA to halt its offensive.

Tripoli-based Foreign Minister Mohamed Siyala urged the U.N. Security Council to call on Haftar to halt the advance.

The U.N. health agency said it fears outbreaks of tuberculosis, measles and diarrhea due to poor sanitation, especially among those displaced.

Five ambulances have been hit trying to extract wounded people from the conflict zone, World Health Organisation (WHO) representative Dr Syed Jaffar Hussain also told a Geneva news briefing from Tripoli.

The WHO said it had only two weeks of medical supplies available for Tripoli’s hospitals.

Haftar casts himself as a bulwark against Islamist militancy who wants to restore order to Libya. But opponents see him as a potential would-be new dictator like Gaddafi.

He has so far resisted U.N. pressure to accept a power-sharing settlement, using his leverage as an ally of the West in attempts to stem jihadists in North Africa.

About 1,500 refugees and migrants are trapped in detention centers, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said. “They must be urgently brought to safety. Simply put, this is a matter of life or death,” Filippo Grandi said in a statement.

Libya is a major transit point for migrants pouring into Europe in recent years, mostly trafficked by smuggling gangs.

(Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi, Ahmed Salem in Tripoli, Tom Miles, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne)

Battle rages for Libya’s capital, airport bombed

A Member of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepares himself to go to the front line in Tripoli Libya April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – A warplane attacked Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Monday as eastern forces advancing on Libya’s capital disregarded global appeals for a truce in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.

The fighting threatens to disrupt oil supplies, fuel migration to Europe and wreck U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.

Casualties are mounting.

The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in Gaddafi’s army – said 19 of its soldiers had died in recent days as they closed in on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.

A spokesman for the Tripoli-based Health Ministry said fighting in the south of the capital had killed at least 25 people, including fighters and civilians, and wounded 80.

The United Nations said 2,800 people had been displaced by clashes and many more could flee, though some were trapped.

“The United Nations continues to call for a temporary humanitarian truce to allow for the provision of emergency services and the voluntary passage of civilians, including those wounded, from areas of conflict,” it said in a statement.

But that seemed to fall on deaf ears. Matiga airport, in an eastern suburb, said it was bombed and a resident confirmed the attack. No more details were immediately available.

Haftar’s LNA, which backs the eastern administration in Benghazi, took the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before advancing fast through largely unpopulated desert regions toward the coastal capital.

Seizing Tripoli, however, is a much bigger challenge for the LNA. It has conducted air strikes on the south of the city as it seeks to advance along a road toward the center from a disused former international airport.

MACHINE GUNS ON PICKUPS

However, the government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, 59, is seeking to block the LNA with the help of allied armed groups who have rushed to Tripoli from nearby Misrata port in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

A Reuters correspondent in the city center could hear gunfire in the distance southwards.

Serraj who comes from a wealthy business family, has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal boycotted by Haftar. His Tripoli government has reported 11 deaths in the last few days, without saying on which side.

U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame met Serraj in his office in Tripoli on Monday to discuss “this critical and difficult juncture”, the world body’s Libya mission said.

The violence has jeopardized a U.N. plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections and end anarchy that has prevailed since the Western-backed toppling of Gaddafi eight years ago.

The U.N. refugee agency expressed anxiety about thousands caught in cross-fire and detention centers in conflict zones in a “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation”.

As well as the United Nations, the European Union, United States and G7 bloc have all urged a ceasefire, a halt to Haftar’s advance and return to negotiations.

Haftar casts himself as a foe of extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gaddafi, whose four-decade rule saw torture, disappearances and assassinations.

MIGRANTS AND MILITANTS

The LNA says it has 85,000 men, but this includes soldiers paid by the central government that it hopes to inherit. Its elite force, Saiqa (Lightning), numbers some 3,500, while Haftar’s sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.

Analysts say Haftar has swelled his ranks with Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders, claims dismissed by the LNA.

Since NATO-backed rebels ousted Gaddafi, Libya has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants trekking across the Sahara in hope of reaching Europe across the sea.

Islamic State staged some high profile attacks in Tripoli last year, but the militant group has largely retreated to the desert of southern Libya since the loss of its former stronghold in Sirte late in 2016.

France, which has close links to Haftar, said it had no prior warning of his push for Tripoli, a diplomatic source said.

France established close relations with Haftar under the Socialist government of Francois Hollande and his defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

When President Emmanuel Macron named Le Drian his foreign minister, Paris doubled down support to Haftar, in close alignment with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

France’s stance has created tensions with Italy, which has sought a leading role to end the turmoil in its former colony that has played into the hands of militants and smugglers.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli; Additional reporting by Hani Amara in Tripoli, Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Tom Miles in Geneva, Robin Emmott in Luxembourg, Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)

East Libyan troops close on Tripoli, clashes at airport

Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres speaks during a news conference in Tripoli, Libya April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Eastern Libyan troops commanded by Khalifa Haftar said on Friday they had advanced into the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli in a dangerous thrust against the internationally-recognized government.

Fighting was going on near the former international airport.

The moves by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force, which is allied to a parallel administration based in the east, escalated a power struggle that has splintered the nation since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

It came as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres departed after meeting Haftar to try and avert civil war.

“I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter.

Haftar, 75, who casts himself as an opponent of Islamist extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new Gaddafi, was quoted by Al-Arabiya TV as telling Guterres the operation would continue until terrorism was defeated.

The coastal capital Tripoli is the ultimate prize for Haftar’s eastern parallel government.

In 2014, he assembled former Gaddafi soldiers and in a three-year battle seized the main eastern city of Benghazi.

This year, he took the south with its oilfields.

As well as visiting Haftar in Benghazi, U.N. boss Guterres had been in Tripoli this week to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for later this month.

But that plan looked in jeopardy on Thursday as LNA forces took Gharyan, about 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based, U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

From there, Haftar’s forces moved north, first taking the village of Suq al-Khamis, about 40 km from Tripoli, after some fighting, a resident and an eastern military source said.

Then on Friday, the LNA said it took the areas of Qasr ben Ghashir and Wadi al-Rabie on the southern outskirts of the capital, seizing the former Tripoli International Airport, which has been abandoned since a 2014 battle.

SETBACK TO MEDIATION PLAN

There was no independent confirmation of that, but a video posted online purportedly showed LNA fighters inside Qasr ben Ghashir suburb, which includes the airport.

However, the Tripoli interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, later told Ahrar TV his forces had retaken the old airport while there were clashes in the Qasr ben Ghashir area.

The LNA said it had lost five soldiers since Thursday.

While the advance has looked fast, so far Haftar’s force has mainly crossed sparsely-populated areas after taking Gharyan, the last town in the mountains before the road descends to a coastal plain.

In 2014 battles for Tripoli, it took advancing fighters weeks to reach the city center from the old airport as snipers bogged them down.

Forces from Misrata, a city east of Tripoli, sent more reinforcements to defend Serraj, residents said.

Major ministries are still 20 km away.

Despite their gains, Haftar’s forces failed to take a checkpoint about 30 km west of the capital in a bid to close the coastal road to Tunisia. An LNA-allied armed group withdrew overnight from so-called Gate 27, leaving it abandoned in the morning, a Reuters reporter said.

And in another setback, forces allied to Tripoli took 145 LNA fighters prisoner in Zawiya, west of the capital, a western commander, Mohamed Alhudair, told Reuters.

An LNA source confirmed 128 had been captured.

Armed groups allied to the Tripoli government have moved more machinegun-mounted pickups from the coastal city of Misrata to Tripoli to defend it against Haftar’s forces.

The offensive is a setback for the United Nations and Western nations trying to mediate between Serraj, 59, who comes from a wealthy business family, and military veteran Haftar.

They met in Abu Dhabi last month to discuss power-sharing.

The United Nations wants to find agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya, an oil producer and transit point for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara with the aim of reaching Europe.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

The UAE, however, joined Western countries in expressing its deep concern about the fighting.

Germany called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council due to the military escalation. Russia said it was not helping Haftar’s forces and it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.

Tunisia has tightened control on its border with Libya in response to the renewed conflict, the defense ministry said.

Former colonial power Italy, which lies across the Mediterranean and has been a destination for migrants, was very worried, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.

“We need to throw water on the fire, not petrol on the fire. I hope that people, acting out of economic or business self-interest, are not looking for a military solution, which would be devastating,” Salvini said.

(Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)