General Khalifa Haftar ordered his self-styled Libyan National Army to move on the capital Tripoli on Thursday, April 4, ahead of planned United Nations-backed talks aimed at developing a “road map” towards political reconciliation for the divided country.
“Today we are responding to the call of our people in our precious capital, as we promised them,” Haftar said in a video released online.
“Today, we will shake the earth beneath the feet of the oppressors.”
In the recording, Haftar urges his forces only to fire their weapons in self-defense, to protect the property of Libyans and ensure the safety of the country’s “foreign guests.”
“Those who lay down their weapons are safe. Those who remain in their homes are safe. Those who raise the white flag are safe,” Haftar said.
Dozens of militias have fought for control of Libya since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Haftar’s LNA has emerged as a key player. It opposes the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj which is based in Tripoli in the west of the country, and is aligned with a parallel administration in Tobruk the east.
The GNA, which was established in 2015 under a U.N.-led initiative agreed upon by the Tobruk government, accuses Haftar of wanting to install a military dictatorship.
An urgent U.N. Security Council meeting called in response to Haftar’s offensive is scheduled for Friday at 1500 EST (1900 GMT).
LNA forces move towards Tripoli
LNA spokesperson Ahmed Mesmari said on Wednesday that an operation was being prepared to “liberate the homeland from terrorism,” adding “we want Tripoli for the sake of the dignity and prestige of a strong state,” Reuters reported.
The GNA in a statement called those comments an “escalation” and declared a full state of alert “to all military, security, army and police forces … to prepare to address any threats that aim to undermine security in any region of our country.”
“We repeat again that there is no military solution to the Libyan crisis, and that war only brings the destruction of the country and suffering of the people,” the statement read.
LNA commander General Abdessalem Al-Hassi told AFP on Thursday that his forces had entered the city without a fight, but AFP sources in the city denied this.
A Gharyan official said there were “ongoing efforts to avoid a confrontation” between rival fighters who divide the city. Videos and photos circulated on social media on Thursday purportedly showing the LNA within Gharyan.
Late on Thursday, LNA forces had reached a security barrier just 27 km (17 miles) west of Tripoli, according to al-Hassi, the LNA’s head of operations in the eastern region. Al-Hassi said his forces had seized the roadblock without any fighting.
Dozens of uniformed men and a least 15 trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns took up positions at the control point known as Bridge 27, AFP reported.
Meanwhile, fighters from the Tripoli Protection Force, an alliance of militias from the capital city, announced on Facebook that they had launched an operation to stop the LNA advance, without giving details.
The Misrata military council called on GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to issue orders to defend western Libya against Haftar’s forces and called on Salame to issue a statement clarifying the U.N. mission UNSMIL’s position on the LNA offensive, the Libyan Observer reported.
In a joint statement released on Thursday, the governments of France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States said they were “deeply concerned by fighting near Gharyan” and urged “all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions which are hindering prospects for U.N. political mediation.”
“At this sensitive moment in Libya’s transition, military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos.”
Libyan political roadmap
Haftar’s announcement came one day after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived in Tripoli to support Special Representative and head of the U.N. Assistance Mission to Libya Ghassan Salame’s Libyan National Conference, set for April 14 to 16.
The conference aims to bring together delegates from around the country to draft a political roadmap to unify the country’s institutions and set a date for long-delayed national elections, which rival leaders had agreed last May to hold.
Haftar and Sarraj met most recently in the United Arab Emirates in late February and agreed on the need to hold elections, though no date was set, the U.N. has said.
The African Union said in March that it will host a “reconciliation” conference in July aimed at uniting Libya’s political rivals.
The GNA previously offered Haftar the position of army chief if he recognizes the government’s civilian authority.
Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, launched while Guterres is in Libya, appears to be a brazen rejection of the GNA and U.N. initiative.
“I am deeply concerned by the military movement taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation,” Guterres tweeted on Thursday morning. “There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country.”
General Haftar and the LNA
A former general in Qaddafi’s army, Haftar returned to Libya from the United States in 2011 and slowly began to build military forces with the support of Egypt, the UAE and Moscow.
Haftar has vowed to take Tripoli for years. Militia forces believed to be aligned with him briefly seized control of parts of the western capital in May 2014 with the help of Zintan militias.
Haftar’s army delcared it had captured the eastern city of Benghazi in July 2017 after a three-year battle.
His forces then advanced to capture the Sirte oil basin before announcing a sweeping offensive across Libya’s restive south in January 2019.
In February, Haftar captured Libya’s southwestern oilfields of Jufra, Sharara, and Fil, placing the LNA in control of nearly all the country’s crude production and absorbing loca lmilitias along the way.
Haftar’s forces also conducted airstrikes against Chadian rebel fighters in southern Libya in February.
With reporting from AFP