TRIPOLI (AFP) – The forces of Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar rained rockets on Tripoli on Tuesday after being ousted by unity government loyalists from a string of strategic towns west of the capital.
The capture on Monday of the coastal towns of Sorman and Sabratha and smaller settlements further south was seen as a major blow to Haftar, who in April last year launched an offensive to seize Tripoli.
Sorman and Sabratha lie respectively 60 and 70 kilometres west of the Libyan capital, about half-way to the Tunisian border.
The oil-rich but poverty-stricken North African country has suffered almost a decade of conflict since longtime dictator Muammar Gadhafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 uprising backed by several Western powers.
The United Nations (UN) said hundreds have been killed and more than 200,000 displaced in the year since Haftar launched his battle for Tripoli, which quickly ground to a bloody stalemate.
Late on Monday, salvo after salvo of rockets began raining down on Tripoli, where the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) is based, and loud explosions could still be heard on Tuesday morning and again in the afternoon, AFP correspondents said.
Several homes were hit around Mitiga airbase in the eastern suburbs, the capital’s sole and only intermittently functioning airport. One person was wounded, rescuers said late on Monday. No casualty updates have been issued since.
The latest escalation comes as concern runs high over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in Libya, where 25 cases and one death have been officially confirmed.
The UN has warned that health services in the country are already fragile and that many hospitals near fighting zones south of Tripoli have been damaged or closed.
Adding to the misery, more than two million residents of areas in and around Tripoli have for the past week been hit by water and power cuts, with the UN accusing “armed groups” of cutting off supplies.
Fighting also raged on Tuesday south of the capital, a GNA military source said.
The GNA accused pro-Haftar forces of pounding Tripoli in revenge against the civilian population following Monday’s losses.
“The criminal militia and mercenaries have taken out their anger on residential neighbourhoods of Tripoli to avenge their defeat, firing dozens of rockets and missiles on the capital indiscriminately,” spokesman Mohamad Gnunu said.
The commander of pro-GNA forces, Oussama al-Jwili, late Monday said the operation to capture Sabratha and Sorman was launched after he received information that Haftar fighters were moving west. The strongman’s forces were planning to advance on the city of Zouara near the Tunisian frontier in an attempt to seize it and then advance on the Ras Jedir border post.
GNA forces on Tuesday carried out air strikes on Al-Watiya airbase southwest of Tripoli, a rear base for Haftar forces to which they had retreated following Monday’s losses.
Fighting was also raging east of Tripoli, between the cities of Misrata and Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, a strategic coastal location captured in early January by Haftar forces.
Misrata meanwhile is the hometown of many GNA loyalists.
Days of fighting also continued in the region of Abu Grein, southeast of Tripoli and half-way between Misrata and Sirte.
The seizure of Sorman and Sabratha was the GNA’s most significant victory since June last year, when its forces retook the town of Gharyan, the main supply base for Haftar’s forces southwest of the capital.
Jalal Harchaoui, a Libya analyst at The Hague-based Clingendael Institute, said Monday’s setback meant Haftar had lost the entire coast west of Tripoli.
According to Harchaoui, the Turkish-backed GNA forces have in recent week been more “aggressive… on multiple fronts, often successfully”.
“High-precision artillery on the ground, Turkish drones and better coordination” were proving a “formidable” combination against Haftar’s forces, he said.
Advanced drones supplied by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have given Haftar, who also relies on backing from Russia, an advantage in the skies.
Several UN-backed attempts to reach a ceasefire between Libya’s two rival forces have failed, and the world body has slammed repeated violations of a 2011 weapons embargo.