Fighting raged around Libyan capital, Tripoli and an air strike closed its only functioning airport yesterday, as head of self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) Khalifa Haftar defied international calls to halt his advance on the capital in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.
Fierce clashes Sunday near Tripoli saw Haftar’s fighters and other powerful western Libyan armed groups exchanging fire including air strikes. Forces backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) on Sunday announced a counteroffensive dubbed “Volcano of Anger”.
Spokesman Colonel Mohamed Gnounou said it was aimed at “purging all Libyan cities of aggressor and illegitimate forces”, in reference to Haftar’s fighters. After a pause overnight, fighting resumed yesterday morning around the capital’s destroyed main airport, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Tripoli, and the rural area of Wadi Rabi further east.
Thousands were also reported by the United Nations to be fleeing the capital city in face of Haftar’s surprise assault which has left dozens dead. LNA controls parts of eastern and western Libya and is opposition to the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord.
Haftar, a former general in Gaddafi’s army, said 19 of its soldiers 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.
Having seized control of much of eastern Libya and buoyed by a series of victories in the desert south, Haftar turned his sights on Tripoli, vowing to “cleanse” it of “terrorists and mercenaries”.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief yesterday added her voice to those urging the eastern strongman to stop his offensive, in the wake of calls for restraint by the United Nations Security Council and the United States.
“I make a very strong appeal to Libyan leaders and in particular to Haftar to stop all military activities … and to return to the negotiation table”, Federica Mogherini said after talks with EU foreign ministers.