Libya’s unity forces in battle to retake strategic Sirte

TRIPOLI (AFP) – Fighters loyal to Libya’s United Nations (UN)-recognised government on Sunday kept up their counter-offensive against forces of strongman Khalifa Haftar, but fighting stalled on the outskirts of the strategic city of Sirte.

The Mediterranean coastal city – the home of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi who was ousted and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising – is also a key gateway to the country’s major oil fields in the east, still held by pro-Haftar forces.

The Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli has in recent weeks retaken all remaining outposts of western Libya from pro-Haftar loyalists, who had sought to capture the capital in a 14-month offensive.

In Tripoli on Sunday, crowds celebrated the retreat of Haftar forces, with residents flashing the victory sign and waving the national flag from honking cars moving in convoy.

“Despite everything, we persisted and achieved victory, and we will keep on doing so,” one of the joyous citizens, Abdel Salam Mohamed, told AFP.

But there were also warnings of acts of bloody retribution following the GNA military gains around Tripoli and the recaptured city of Tarhuna, including reports of looting and the displacement of thousands of residents.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said it “remains alarmed by the harm inflicted on the civilian population by the continuing cycle of violence in Libya”.

Rights group Amnesty International warned last week that “war crimes and other violations” may have been committed by warring parties near Tripoli, often in retaliation against civilians for their perceived affiliation to one side or another.

Haftar, following his string of military setbacks, was in Cairo last Saturday to support a ceasefire proposal made by his key backer, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, meant to take effect yesterday.

The so-called “Cairo declaration” called for the withdrawal of “foreign mercenaries from all Libyan territory, dismantling militias and handing over their weaponry,” Sisi said.

But the resurgent GNA has rejected the truce plan and bombarded Sirte, the last major settlement before the traditional boundary between western Libya and the east, Haftar’s stronghold.

Mohamad Gnounou, a spokesman for the GNA’s forces, declared on Saturday that “we will choose the time and place when” the war ends.

One of the Tripoli demonstrators, Abdallah Faraj, dismissed the latest ceasefire proposal on the basis that Haftar “is signing after he lost the war”, pointing out that the strongman had rejected previous truce offers.