CAIRO — Clashes between rival Libyan forces for control of the capital escalated Wednesday as militias allied with the U.N.-supported government launched an offensive against a military base held by their rivals, officials said.
The renewed fighting comes despite increased international pressure on both sides to halt the violence over concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus. Libya reported its first case of the virus Tuesday.
The fighting has been raging for nearly a year between military commander Khalifa Hifter’s forces, which are allied with a rival government based in eastern Libya, and an array of militias in the west loosely linked to the authorities in Tripoli, the capital.
Hifter’s self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces said they repelled an attack on the al-Waitya airbase by Tripoli militias in the city’s southern reaches. Late Wednesday, Hifter’s force claimed to have gone over to the attack in response to its foes’ offensive, saying it captured several Syrian mercenaries and seized small western coastal towns, including Jumayl, Rigdalin and Zultan. Videos circulated on social media showing Hifter’s fighters celebrating after reaching the town of Rigdalin.
For his part, Ossama Gowelii, who heads the so-called joint operation room of the Tripoli militias, said his forces successfully attacked the airbase and arrested a “number” of Hifter’s fighters, including foreign mercenaries. He did not provide evidence.
Overnight artillery shelling rocked several areas of Tripoli, Gowelii said, adding that their offensive came in response to the shelling. The attack on the airbase would likely give Hifter’s forces an excuse to push back against international pressure to stop the fighting and focus on efforts against the coronavirus.
A week ago, the warring sides has expressed commitment to a humanitarian pause in fighting so that authorities could focus on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. There are fears the global pandemic could devastate the war-torn Libya, where a decade-long conflict has ravaged key infrastructure and created dire medical shortages.
So far the only confirmed coronavirus case in Libya is that of a 73-year-old man who crossed into Libya from neighbouring Tunisia on March 5, according to the National Center for Disease Control in Tripoli.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Libya on Wednesday voiced deep concern, warning that a possible outbreak would overwhelm the already stretched aid response in Libya.
“The health and safety of all people in Libya, including 345,000 of the most vulnerable, is at risk,” OCHA said.
Hifter forces launched his offensive on Tripoli last April. The chaos in the oil-rich country has worsened in recent months as foreign backers increasingly intervene, despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Turkey has sent armoured drones, air defences and more recently Syrian militants with links to extremist groups to prop up the embattled U.N.-backed Tripoli government.
Russia, meanwhile, has deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost Hifter’s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back Hifter with fighter jets, drones and mine-resistant vehicles.
Samy Magdy, The Associated Press