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Libyan militias fight Haftar's forces.

Summary: Militias in western Libya fought forces under rival army commander Khalifa Haftar Friday, a day after he declared an offensive to seize the capital

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI: Militias in western Libya fought forces under rival army commander Khalifa Haftar Friday, a day after he declared an offensive to seize the capital, Tripoli, raising fears of renewed civil war in the oil-rich nation. The escalation surprised the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had been in the capital this week to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for later this month.

But Thursday Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army took Gharyan, about 80 kilometers south of Tripoli after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based, U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj.

They further moved north Friday coming as close as 40 kilometers to Tripoli by taking Souk al-Khamis after some fighting, a resident and an eastern military source said.

In the evening, the LNA said it had taken seized the former Tripoli International Airport closed since a city battle in 2014 and the nearby areas of Qasr ben Ghashir and Wadi al-Rabie on the southern outskirts of Tripoli.

LNA spokesperson Ahmad Mismari also told reporters his forces were in control of Tarhouna and Aziziya, two towns near Tripoli.

The LNA failed, however, to take a checkpoint about 30 kilometers west of the capital in a bid to close the coastal road to Tunisia. An LNA-allied armed group withdrew overnight from so-called Gate 27, leaving it abandoned in the morning, a Reuters reporter said.

In another setback, forces allied to Tripoli took 145 LNA fighters prisoner in Zawiya, west of Tripoli, a western commander, Mohammad al-Hudair, told Reuters. An LNA source confirmed 128 had been captured.

Sixty vehicles had also been seized, Hudair said. Militias from the western cities of Zawiya and Misrata said they have mobilized to confront Haftar.

"We are the revolutionaries and the elders ... we declare we are in full mobilization and war," they said in a video statement posted online.

A group of allied militias called the Joint Tripoli Protection Force based in the area around the Libyan capital announced they would also deploy to repel Haftar's offensive.

The prospect of a renewed fighting came as Guterres wrapped up his visit Friday with "heavy heart and deep concern," after a meeting with Haftar.

"I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli," Guterres said on Twitter.

"The U.N. is committed to facilitating a political solution and, whatever happens, the U.N. is committed to supporting the Libyan people."

Al-Arabiya TV said Haftar told Guterres that the operation would continue until terrorism is defeated.

Guterres, who spent Thursday night in the heavily fortified U.N. compound in a Tripoli suburb, flew to Benghazi and drove to Haftar's base, witnesses said.

He earlier went to Tobruk, another eastern city, to meet Aguila Saleh, president of the House of Representatives, which is also allied to Haftar.

"My aim remains the same: avoid a military confrontation," Guterres tweeted earlier.

The offensive is a setback for the United Nations and Western countries trying to mediate between Sarraj and Haftar, who met in Abu Dhabi last month to discuss a power-sharing deal.

Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.

The UAE, however, joined Western countries in expressing its deep concern about the fighting.

Germany called an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council due to the military escalation.

Russia said it was not helping Haftar's forces and it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.

Tunisia has tightened control on its border with Libya in response to the renewed conflict, the Defense Ministry said.

Former colonial power Italy, which lies across the Mediterranean from Libya and has been a destination for migrants fleeing the chaos at home, was very worried by the turn of events, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.

"We need to throw water on the fire, not petrol on the fire. I hope that people, acting out of economic or business self-interest, are not looking for a military solution, which would be devastating," Salvini said.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Apr 6, 2019
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