Libyan force slows Tripoli push over concerns for civilians

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) – A self-styled Libyan army slowed down its push on the country’s capital over concerns for civilians caught up in the violence, as the UN refugee agency said on Monday that the fighting for Tripoli has displaced more than 32,000 people.

Fighting erupted on April 5, pitting the self-styled Libyan National Army, led by commander Khalifa Hifter and aligned with a rival government in the east, against militias affiliated with Tripoli’s UN-supported government.

The clashes threaten to ignite a new civil war in Libya on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, said on Monday that “divisions that prevail in the international community over the Libyan problem” are impeding efforts to impose a cease-fire. He spoke at a press conference following a meeting in Tunisia with the country’s minister of foreign affairs.

Hifter has received aid from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia and France.

Protesters wear yellow vests at a protest in Tripoli, Libya as they wave national flags and chant slogans against Libya’s Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, who is leading an offensive to take over the capital of Tripoli. – AP

On Friday, President Donald Trump spoke with the Libyan commander by phone.

A White House statement said “the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”

The death toll from this month’s fighting climbed to 264, including combatants and civilians, the World Health Organization said Monday. It said 1,266 people had been wounded.

Since launching his push, which many see as a power grab for Tripoli, Hifter’s forces have captured the districts of Gharyan and Qasr Bani Ghashir along with several smaller towns. They also seized the capital’s shuttered old airport.

Fighting is now underway for control of Ain Zara and Azizyia, two larger towns near Tripoli, and in the Abu Salim district, about seven kilometres from Tripoli’s centre.

Abdelhadi Lahouij, the top diplomat for the east-based government, told The Associated Press in Tunis on Sunday that Hifter’s push was slowed down because of concerns for civilians in the greater Tripoli area, estimated to number about three million.

If the civilians had not been taken into account, the battle would not have lasted even a week, he said.

“The army is today 20 kilometres from Tripoli. It controls the (old) airport and the bridge that connects the airport to the city centre,” Lahouij said.

He also lauded Trump’s call to Hifter last week expressing US support for the Libyan commander’s perceived stance against terrorism and Hifter’s role in “securing Libya’s oil resources.”

Trump’s phone call was a step “in the right direction,” Lahouij said.

Since Gadhafi’s ouster, Libya has slid into chaos, governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli, each backed by various militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory.

Hifter has led previous campaigns against militants and other rivals in eastern Libya.