220 killed in fighting over Libya’s capital, says UN

Libyan fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) fire their guns during clashes with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar south of the capital Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara, on April 20, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 21 April 2019

220 killed in fighting over Libya’s capital, says UN

  • Eastern Libyan forces launched an offensive on Tripoli more than two weeks ago
  • Haftar says his forces are fighting to clear the country of “terrorist” elements

BENGHAZI, Tripoli: The UN health agency says at least 15 more people died in fighting over control of Libya’s capital in the past two days, bringing the total to 220 dead including civilians.
The World Health Organization said late Friday that 1,066 others have been wounded since the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive on April 5 to take Tripoli.
The fighting pits the LNA, led by Khalifa Haftar, against rival militias affiliated with a weak UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) government in the capital.

US support
President Donald Trump phoned Haftar earlier this week, expressing US support for the leader’s perceived stance against terrorism.
The White House revealed late Friday that Trump reached out personally to Haftar, as a push at the UN to broker a cease-fire hit trouble.
Observers see Trump’s words of praise for the eastern commander, at the expense of GNA leader Fayez Al-Serraj, as evidence of US support that explains Haftar’s determination to pursue his offensive to seize Tripoli. Trump and Haftar spoke on Monday “to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” according to the White House.
A statement said that Trump “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources,” adding that “the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”
Haftar, seen by his allies Egypt and the UAE as a bulwark against militants, has declared he wants to seize the capital, now controlled by a UN-recognized government and an array of militias.
On Thursday, Russia and the US opposed a British bid backed by France and Germany at the UN Security Council to demand a cease-fire in Libya.
The military commander backs a rival administration based in eastern Libya that is refusing to recognize the Tripoli government’s authority.
Russia insisted on having no criticism of Haftar in the proposed resolution, while the US said it wanted more time to consider the situation.
Diplomats say the signaling from Washington goes a long way toward explaining Haftar’s aggressive strategy in the face of strong condemnation by the European powers and the UN.
“Haftar believes he has to fight until the end,” said one diplomat at the UN speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Despite some military setbacks, Haftar maintains that he “can prevail,” according to several others.
News of Trump’s phone call “clarifies” the US position, noted another diplomat, after Britain fought in vain for five days to try to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire and unconditional humanitarian access to the combat zones.
In terms of international backing, Haftar enjoys the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Russia and — now, clearly — the US.
Al-Serraj, whose control over his country remains extremely tenuous, is backed by Qatar and Turkey.
Haftar would not have unleashed his offensive without a green light from his backers, and getting him to back down from the “impasse” will depend on their will, the diplomats said.
Whatever the outcome of the British resolution, the evolution of the diplomatic game around Libya has undercut the UN’s authority.
The launch of the offensive coincided with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s visit to Libya to push for a national reconciliation conference.
That conference was hastily canceled by the UN’s representative to Libya Ghassan Salame, who just this week described Haftar’s military operation as a “coup d’etat.” Both his credibility and that of the UN are on the line if Haftar wins power.


Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

Updated 13 min 4 sec ago

Assad forces mass for new attack on opposition stronghold

  • Troops drive north toward Turkish border
  • Kurdish buffer zone ‘fully operational’

BEIRUT: Assad regime troops massed in northwest Syria on Saturday in preparation for a new drive north toward the border with Turkey.

The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition. Until last week, it was controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, an alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes captured the key town of Khan Sheikhun from the militants on Wednesday, and on Friday they overran the countryside to the south of the town.

“The day after they controlled the area south of Khan Sheikhun, regime forces began massing in the area north of it,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They were “preparing to continue their advance toward the area of Maaret Al-Noman,” a town about 25km north, he said.

Heavy bombardment hit the area on Saturday in preparation for a further push north. Thick gray smoke billowed up into a clear blue sky after a strike on the outskirts of Maaret Al-Noman. Like Khan Sheikhun, the town sits on the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, a key target for the regime to recapture.

However, the new offensive that began in April has heightened tension with Turkey, which fears an influx of refugees fleeing the fighting. Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region in an attempt to set up a buffer zone to protect civilians.

FAST FACTS

  • The border region of Idlib is the last bastion of the Syrian opposition.
  • Turkish troops have been deployed at 12 observation posts around the Idlib region.

The regime accuses Turkey of using the observation posts to arm and supply the militants. Last week, airstrikes targeted a Turkish military convoy traveling south down the main highway toward one of the posts at Morek. The convoy was still stranded on Saturday north of Khan Sheikhun.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the Morek observation post had been surrounded and said Turkish troops would not withdraw from the position.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Further east in Syria, a joint Turkish-US control center to establish and manage a safe zone is fully operational, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said. 

“The command of the center is by one US general and one Turkish general,” he said, and the first joint helicopter flight took place on Saturday after Turkish drones carried out surveillance work in the safe zone last week.

Syrian Kurds said on Saturday they would support the implementation of the buffer zone. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) played a key role in the battle against Daesh in Syria, but Ankara views them as terrorists.

“The SDF will be a positive party toward the success of this operation,” said Mazloum Kobani, head of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces.