Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) which has been under attack by forces loyal to putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar since April, has made significant gains recently as government forces seized two fronts south of the capital and the people of Sabha province declared their support for the GNA.
The GNA took control of the two fronts early Friday in the south of the capital Tripoli. "Our forces made progress on the Mashru and Hallatat fronts and took a large area under control," Mustafa al-Majai, spokesman for the GNA's Burkan al-Ghadab (Volcano of Rage) operation, told Anadolu Agency (AA), adding that the areas had been out of their control for three months. He said they have also taken the Hamza camp in the south of Tripoli.
The people of southwestern Sabha, on the other side, in a joint statement declared their withdrawal of support for warlord Haftar and announced their support of the legitimate government late Thursday. In a five-article statement the people wrote: "Despite the rejection of the Libyan people, (foreign powers) tried to implement the Egyptian experience at gunpoint in the country. We object to the military seizing control of the government.”
The GNA also conducted airstrikes on military vehicles and five air operations targeting militants loyal to Haftar at Al-Watiya airbase southwest of the capital Tripoli, a local official said early Friday. Al-Watiya is regarded as a key airbase in the country and is second only to Mitiga International Airport. It was captured in August 2014 by Haftar, the leader of illegally armed forces in eastern Libya, who used it as his headquarters for western operations. Moreover, the GNA declared three airbases "occupied" by foreign forces. According to a visual slide by GNA military spokesman Mohammed Qanunu shared late Wednesday on social media, three airbases, Al-Watiya, Al-Jufra and Al-Khadim, are being run by foreign countries including the United Arab Emirates. Saying that these bases are run by foreign countries to create chaos in Libya, Qanunu added that the bases are used as "launching pads for aircraft bombing civilian targets and state installations, which has killed hundreds of civilians, including children and women, and destroyed schools and hospitals.”
"The operation targeted Haftar's forces and military ammunition," Qanunu said in a statement. As part of Operation Peace Storm, air operations are being periodically carried out against the base, which is mostly controlled by Haftar's militias. Earlier, the Libyan government carried out six airstrikes on a military convoy of Haftar's forces south of Tripoli.
"Our air forces carried out six airstrikes on an armed convoy of terrorist Haftar's militia," Qanunu said in a statement by the press center of the GNA-led Operation Volcano of Rage.
The statement said the operation was carried out on a road between the Kariyyat and Nesma regions near Mersit Valley.
Despite declaring a cease-fire, just days later, Haftar's forces attacked civilian settlements south of Tripoli on Friday. Three civilians lost their lives in the rocket attack, according to medical sources.
After unilaterally declaring himself ruler of Libya on Monday, Haftar announced a cease-fire for the rest of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a few days later. The announcement came after the military balance had started to shift this month toward the advantage of the GNA, as the Tripoli government recaptured the country’s western coastline. Haftar and his supporters caused the failure of past cease-fire attempts, which have destroyed trust on the ground, and have used the global coronavirus pandemic to escalate their Tripoli siege.
Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio warned on Wednesday in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica that there is no alternative to a political solution to the Libyan conflict, expressing concern over a possible escalation which could lead to a new war in the region.
Di Maio added that he recently discussed the situation in Libya with EU High Representative Josep Borrell, who is reconsidering the option of naming a special European representative for the war-torn country.
"We would need a neutral figure who would give a new impulse to dialogue in the wake of the Berlin conference," which started the path toward a permanent cease-fire, Di Maio said.
Haftar responsible for most casualties
Libyan government troops have been under attack by Haftar's militias since last April, and international efforts to enforce a cease-fire have proven unsuccessful. The aggression has intensified in the last few months as forces loyal to Haftar have killed civilians almost daily. They have also not refrained from attacking Tripoli’s hospitals, vital for the Libyan people fighting the coronavirus outbreak. The U.N. has urged Haftar’s forces several times to halt assaults on hospitals when they are most needed, yet the calls have largely been ignored. The U.N. condemned the attacks as a “clear violation of international law.”
In recent weeks, Hafter's forces have killed scores of civilians and bombed much-needed medical facilities, attacking two clinics this week alone in times when the people of Libya need the medical facilities the most to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Just how fractured Libya remains was demonstrated by Haftar’s speech earlier this week in which he dismissed a 2015 U.N.-brokered unity deal and said he would move to create a new government.
A report by the U.N. mission on Thursday documented a 45% spike in the number of civilians killed in violence in the first three months of the year, compared to the last quarter of 2019. Ground fighting, targeted killings, airstrikes and improvised explosive devices killed 62 civilians and wounded 67 since January, it said, including 27 children. The report held Haftar’s forces responsible for 81% of the casualties.
The victims include 82 men (43 deaths and 39 injuries), 22 women (nine deaths and 13 injuries), 19 boys (seven deaths and 12 injuries), and eight girls (five deaths and three injuries).
UN renews calls for dialogue
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) once again called for a halt in hostilities in the war-ravaged country while urging the parties to take up the dialogue for a solution in Libya, in accord with the Berlin conference held in January.
“UNSMIL calls upon both parties to seize this opportunity to immediately halt all military operations and resume the 5+5 Joint Military Commission talks,” a written statement said Thursday, adding that UNSMIL welcomes initiatives that will allow the Libyan people, who have borne the brunt of this conflict, to observe the Ramadan holiday in peace.
“UNSMIL believes that the ultimate guarantee of a lasting cease-fire rests not only on the goodwill of the parties to the conflict but the commitment of the international community to abide by its obligations to pursue and preserve peace and security in Libya,” the statement continued.
The U.N.-sponsored peace talks between the two parties in February ended without reaching an outcome. Three tracks were determined in the application of the Berlin conference's conclusions reached on Jan. 19. The first one was the military track, which brought together five senior military officers from Haftar's so-called Libyan National Army and five representatives aligned with the internationally recognized GNA. The second track, was an economic and financial track, while the third was political.
Since the ouster of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in Libya: Haftar in eastern Libya, supported by Russia, Egypt and the UAE, and the GNA in Tripoli, which enjoys U.N. and international recognition.