U.S. military says Russia deployed fighter jets to Libya

TUNIS (Reuters) – The U.S. military said on Tuesday that Russia has deployed fighter aircraft to Libya to support Russian mercenaries fighting for eastern forces, adding to concerns of a new escalation in the conflict.

“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” the United States Africa command said in a statement it posted on its website and on Twitter.

Libya’s civil war has drawn in regional and global powers with what the United Nations has called a huge influx of weapons and fighters in violation of an arms embargo.

Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support the eastern-based Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which launched an offensive last year to seize the capital Tripoli.

However, in recent weeks the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has with extensive Turkish backing pushed Haftar back from his foothold in southern Tripoli and from some other parts of the northwest.

The United States has played a less prominent role in the Libyan war than it did at an earlier stage when NATO helped rebels overthrow the country’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

The statement said the aircraft had arrived from an airbase in Russia after transiting via Syria, where they were repainted to conceal their Russian origin. There was no immediate response from the Russian Defence Ministry to a request for comment.

On Saturday, Russian fighters in Libya were flown out of a town south of Tripoli by their Libyan allies after retreating from frontlines in Tripoli, the town’s mayor said.

The LNA has denied any foreigners are fighting with it, but the United Nations said this month that Russian private military contractor Wagner Group had up to 1,200 people in Libya.

“Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions,” the U.S. statement said.

It quoted U.S. Air Force General Jeff Harrigian as warning that if Russia seized bases on Libya’s coast, it would “create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank”.

The statement said neither the LNA nor mercenaries would be able to “arm, operate and sustain these fighters” — meaning fighter aircraft — without the support they had from Russia. Last week the LNA announced it would be launching a major new air campaign against the GNA and said it had refurbished four war jets.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Andrew Osborne in Moscow; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Putin proposes 2020 summit with leaders of Russia, France, China, U.S. and UK

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed holding a summit between the leaders of Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain in 2020 to discuss the conflict in Libya and other global problems.

Putin, who was speaking during a trip to Israel, said Moscow was ready for a “serious conversation” with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, that there was much to discuss and that the summit could happen anywhere in the world.

“In any country, at any point of the world that is convenient for our colleagues. Russia is ready for this kind of serious conversation,” he said.

“There are many tasks before us. We discussed one of them very recently in Berlin…That is Libya. And we need to return to this problem at the Security Council and adopt the corresponding resolution,” he said.

Putin, who was in Israel on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said holding such a summit would be an important symbolic step ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two.

“We discussed (this) with several colleagues and as far as I understand in general we saw a positive reaction to holding a meeting of the heads of the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” he said.

(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Oil rises as Libya declares force majeure in oilfields

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin

LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices rose to their highest in more than week on Monday after two large crude production bases in Libya began shutting down amid a military blockade, risking reducing crude flows from the OPEC member to a trickle.

Brent crude <LCOc1> was up 59 cents, or 0.9%, at $65.44 by 1442 GMT, having earlier touched $66 a barrel, its highest since Jan. 9.

West Texas Intermediate <CLc1> was up 39 cents, or 0.7%, at $58.93 a barrel, after rising to $59.73, the highest since Jan. 10.

Two major oilfields in southwest Libya began shutting down on Sunday after forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar closed a pipeline, potentially cutting national output to a fraction of its normal level, the National Oil Corporation (NOC) said.

NOC declared force majeure on crude loadings from the Sharara and El Feel oilfields, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The closure, which follows a blockade of major eastern oil ports, risked taking almost all the country’s oil output offline.

However, the earlier rise in oil prices eased after some analysts and traders said supply disruptions in Libya will be short-lived and could be offset by other producers, limiting the impact on global markets.

“The oil market remains well supplied with ample stocks and a healthy spare capacity cushion. In other words, the bullish price impact may prove to be fleeting,” said Stephen Brennock of oil broker PVM.

Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects, added: “We expect the current scale of outages to be fairly short-lived… as there is limited upside for Haftar to slow the country’s oil revenues to a trickle.”

“The current closures are clearly a power play aimed at boosting Haftar’s leverage amid international efforts to broker peace in the country.”

Foreign powers agreed at a summit in Berlin on Sunday to shore up a shaky truce in Libya, which has been in turmoil since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

If Libyan exports are halted for any sustained period, storage tanks will fill within days and production will slow to 72,000 barrels per day (bpd), an NOC spokesman said. Libya has been producing around 1.2 million bpd recently.

“A prolonged disruption from Libya would be enough to swing the global oil market from surplus to deficit in (the first quarter of 2020),” said ING analyst Warren Patterson.

Meanwhile in Iraq, another major oil producer, two police officers and two protesters were killed as anti-government unrest resumed after a lull of several weeks.

However, production in southern oilfields was unaffected by the unrest, officials said.

Market activity was thin on Monday on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the United States.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Additioanl reporting by Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Louise Heavens and Jan Harvey)

U.S. launches strike in southern Libya as U.N. warns of escalation

By Aidan Lewis

CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. forces said on Wednesday they killed 11 suspected militants in their second air strike in a week near the southern Libyan town of Murzuq, as the U.N. envoy warned of a growing risk of armed escalation and rights abuses in the country.

The strike comes as rival factions have been locked in a battle around the capital Tripoli, about 500 miles (800km) to the north, which forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have been trying to capture since April.

The U.S. attack, carried out on Tuesday deep in Libya’s southern desert, followed a Sept. 19 strike that the U.S. said had killed eight suspected militants.

“This air strike was conducted to eliminate ISIS (Islamic State) terrorists and deny them the ability to conduct attacks on the Libyan people,” Major General William Gayler, director of operations for U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement.

Some Islamic State militants retreated south into Libya’s desert as the group lost its stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte at the end of 2016.

The U.S., which has carried out occasional strikes in desert areas, has said it will not allow militants to use the fighting around Tripoli for cover.

The offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) upended U.N.-led plans to broker a political settlement in Libya and soon stalled in the capital’s outskirts.

The conflict has spread outside Tripoli, with air and drone strikes against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya, U.N. Libya envoy Ghassan Salame told the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday.

It had also triggered a “micro-conflict” in Murzuq, where more than 100 civilians are reported to have been killed over the past two months, he said.

“The conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war,” Salame said by video link. “It is fanned by widespread violations of the U.N. arms embargo by all parties and external actors.”

“Serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law have been committed with total impunity, including increased summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment as well as conflict-related sexual violence.”

Libya has been divided between rival factions based in Tripoli and the east since 2014, three years after a NATO-backed uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.

Haftar’s LNA is battling forces aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was set up in 2016 following a U.N.-brokered deal.

Haftar’s foreign backers include the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who diplomats and analysts say are vying for influence in the oil-rich nation with regional rivals Turkey and Qatar.

At least 128,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since April, according to U.N. estimates.

(Reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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)

Thousands flee Tripoli homes as battle rages on outskirts

Members of Libyan internationally recognised pro-government forces ride in military vehicles on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Eastern forces and troops loyal to the Tripoli government battled on the outskirts of Libya’s capital on Wednesday as thousands of residents fled from the fighting.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar held positions in the suburbs about 11 km (7 miles) south of the center. Steel containers and pickups with mounted machine-guns blocked their way into the city.

Residents reported LNA planes buzzing Tripoli as anti-aircraft guns fired at them. On the ground, Haftar’s forces were fighting Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s soldiers at the former international airport, witnesses said.

A Reuters reporter in downtown Tripoli could hear the gunfire.

The United Nations said at least 4,500 Tripoli residents had been displaced, most moving away from homes in conflict areas to safer districts. Many more were trapped, it said.

The LNA forces moved out of their stronghold in east Libya to take the sparsely-populated but oil-rich south earlier this year, before heading a week ago toward Tripoli, where the internationally-recognized government sits.

Libya has been divided and anarchic since the 2011 toppling of then-strongman Muammar Gaddafi. He ruled for more than four decades before falling in a Western-backed revolt.

Since then, political and armed factions have vied for power and control of Libya’s oil wealth, and the country split into rival eastern and western administrations linked to shifting military alliances after a battle for Tripoli in 2014.

The United Nations wants to bring both sides together to plan an election and way out of the chaos.

“I JUST WANT TO SURVIVE”

On its Facebook page, Haftar’s forces published a video purporting to show their seizure of a government base in the Aziziya district of southern Tripoli. The images, which could not be verified, showed a vehicle on fire and soldiers firing in the air, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).

U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said it was extremely concerned about the “disproportionate and indiscriminate use” of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.

Half a million children were at risk, it added.

As well as the humanitarian consequences, renewed conflict in Libya threatens to disrupt oil supplies, increase migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, scupper the U.N. peace plan, and encourage Islamist militants to exploit the chaos.

Islamic State killed three people in a remote desert town under LNA control two days ago.

In Tripoli, nearly 50 people have died, mainly combatants but also some civilians including two doctors, according to latest U.N. casualty estimates. The toll is expected to rise.

Several thousand migrants, detained after trying to use Libya as a staging point for crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, have also been caught up in the crisis.

U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday it had relocated more than 150 of them – among several thousand in total – from one detention center in south Tripoli to a facility of its own in a safe zone.

One official at that detention center said he flung open the doors on Wednesday and released another 150 migrants for their own safety due to the proximity of clashes.

The United Nations, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a ceasefire, a return to the U.N. peace plan, and a halt to Haftar’s push.

But instead of that, he was moving men and equipment from southern and eastern Libya to a forward base at Gharyan, a town south of Tripoli, according to a foreign diplomatic source observing the deployments.

Opponents cast Haftar as a would-be dictator in the mould of Gaddafi, though he projects himself as a champion against extremism striving to restore order to Libya.

Haftar was among the officers who helped Gaddafi rise to power in 1969 but fell out with him during a war with Chad in the 1980s. He was taken prisoner by the Chadians, rescued by the CIA, and lived for about 20 years in Virginia before returning in 2011 to join other rebels in the uprising against Gaddafi.

Despite the flare-up in conflict, normal life was just about continuing in Tripoli, a city of roughly 1.2 million people, though prices were rising and businesses closing earlier than usual, residents said.

“I don’t care who wins or loses, I just want to survive with my family,” said a teacher in Tripoli who hoped to get out.

(Additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Suffering grows from Libya conflict, jihadists exploit vacuum

Bullets are seen while members of Misrata forces, under the protection of Tripoli's forces, prepare themselves to go to the front line in Tripoli, Libya April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Hani Amara

By Ahmed Elumami and Stephanie Nebehay

TRIPOLI/GENEVA (Reuters) – Casualties from the battle for Libya’s capital mounted on Tuesday while Islamic State killed three people in a desert town, illustrating how jihadists may exploit renewed chaos.

Medical facilities reported 47 people killed and 181 wounded in recent days as eastern forces seek to take Tripoli from an internationally-recognized government, the World Health Organisation said.

That was a higher figure than numbers given by either side, and appeared to be made up mainly of fighters, although it also comprised nine civilians including two doctors, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in Geneva.

The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s army – seized the sparsely populated but oil-rich south earlier this year before heading toward Tripoli this month.

They are fighting on the southern side of the city, where witnesses said on Monday afternoon the LNA had lost control of a former airport and withdrawn down the road.

The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, who has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal that Haftar boycotted, is seeking to repel the LNA with the help of armed groups who have rushed from Misrata in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

Serraj’s forces carried out an air strike on an LNA position in the suburb of Suq al-Khamis on Tuesday, a resident and an eastern military source said, without giving more details.

GLOBAL PLEAS

The United Nations, United States, European Union and G7 bloc have appealed for a ceasefire, a return to a U.N. peace plan, and a halt to Haftar’s push.

Far south of Tripoli, the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for attacking the town of Fuqaha, where residents said three people were killed and another kidnapped.

Fuqaha is controlled by fighters loyal to Haftar, who casts himself as a foe of Islamist extremism though he is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mold of Gaddafi.

IS has been active in Libya in the turmoil since the Western-backed overthrow of Gaddafi eight years ago.

It took control of the coastal city of Sirte in 2015 but lost it the following year to local forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, and now operates in the shadows. The attack on Fuqaha indicated IS may be looking to exploit gaps left by movements of Haftar’s troops.

Libya’s potential slide into civil war threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration across the Mediterranean to Europe and scupper U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in east and west.

“There are fears that the civilian death toll will rise rapidly as the fighting intensifies and spreads into more densely populated parts of the city,” said Amnesty International&rsquo;s regional deputy, Magdalena Mughrabi.

On Monday, a warplane took out Tripoli’s only functioning airport, and the number of displaced people – 3,400 at the last U.N. count – is mounting alongside the casualties.

MIGRANT MISERY

Libya has become the main conduit for African migrants and refugees trying to reach Europe, many of whom suffer torture, rape and extortion on their journeys.

Those who manage to board a boat to Italy risk drowning or being sent back into detention in inhumane conditions, according to the U.N. migration agency, which estimates that twice as many die in the Sahara desert as in the Mediterranean.

U.N. agencies say some 5,700 refugees and migrants are trapped in detention centers in conflict areas and fear some may be used as human shields or forcibly recruited.

“They tell us they can hear the clashes. Many are really scared,” U.N. refugee agency UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.

The LNA says it has 85,000 men in an army analyst believe has been swelled by Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders. Its elite Saiqa (Lightning) force numbers some 3,500, LNA sources say.

Britain’s junior foreign minister, Mark Field, told parliament on Monday that Haftar had support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and had spent 20 years in the United States so was likely to have good connections there. Field said he feared the new violence could foster support for Islamic State.

“My biggest concern, I guess, is that it is very evident that General Haftar’s position is that he doesn’t regard democracy as being an important way forward for Libya,” he said.

The U.N.-backed prime minister Serraj, 59, received telephone calls from Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and France’s President Emmanuel Macron late on Monday to discuss the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi, Tom Miles in Geneva, Ulf Laessing in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Giles Elgood and Frances Kerry)

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)