Haftar forces press offensive on Libyan capital

A Libyan fighter fires a rocket propelled grenade during clashes with forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar south of Tripoli’s suburb of Ain Zara, on Saturday. (AFP)
Updated 22 April 2019
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Haftar forces press offensive on Libyan capital

  • Tripoli air traffic was suspended overnight to Sunday for “security reasons,” the city’s only operating airport said Sunday

TRIPOLI: Forces backing Libya’s unity government battled to push back an offensive by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar on Sunday as his troops approached the gates of Tripoli after air raids overnight.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), galvanized by victories in its eastern stronghold and in the country’s desert south, announced an offensive early this month to seize the capital from the administration of Fayez Al-Serraj.
But his forces have faced fierce resistance from armed groups backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), including powerful factions from the western city of Misrata.
The bloodshed has derailed efforts to bring peace to a country where militants and people smugglers have exploited the chaos unleashed by the NATO-backed overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Clashes intensified on Saturday when forces loyal to the GNA announced a counterattack.
“We have launched a new phase of attack. Orders were given early this morning to advance and gain ground,” said Mustafa Al-Mejii, a spokesman for GNA forces.
Sustained rocket and shellfire could be heard in several districts of Tripoli on Saturday, after several days of less intense fighting and stalemate on the ground.
Explosions were heard from the city center overnight, and some witnesses reported airstrikes.
Pope Francis, delivering his traditional Easter message, called for an end to “conflict and bloodshed” that was killing “defenseless people” in Libya.
“I urge the parties involved to choose dialogue over force and to avoid reopening wounds left by a decade of conflicts and political instability,” he said.
Tripoli air traffic was suspended overnight to Sunday for “security reasons,” the city’s only operating airport said Sunday.
At least two flights were re-routed from Mitiga airport to Misrata, more than 200 km to the east, the airport’s authorities said on their Facebook page. They said flights had resumed early in the morning to Mitiga, east of the capital.

The former military air base was hit by an airstrike on April 8, claimed by the LNA, and has since only operated between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The GNA counter-attack put pro-government forces back in control of Ain Zara, in the southern suburbs of Tripoli, where an AFP team confirmed pro-GNA forces had advanced, shifting the front line a few kilometers south.
GNA spokesman Mejii told AFP on Sunday morning that “after a long day of military success, our forces are consolidating their (new) positions.”
Some witnesses spoke of air raids and drones, but Mejii said the blasts were caused by strikes from LNA helicopters aimed at “terrorizing civilians.”
He said they had not caused any casualties but had taken place away from the front lines, without offering any further details.
Military sources say the aging Soviet and Russian fighter jets used by both sides are not equipped to carry out night time strikes, but Mejii said Haftar’s forces have a helicopter with night vision capabilities.
The UN’s Libya envoy warned on Thursday of “a widening conflagration” in the North African country.
Ghassan Salame told AFP that “international divisions” prior to the assault on Tripoli had emboldened Haftar, who is backed by Russia and seen by his allies Egypt and the UAE as a bulwark against militants.
The White House revealed Friday that US President Donald Trump reached out personally to Haftar, as a push at the UN to broker a cease-fire hit trouble.
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.”
Observers saw Trump’s words of praise for the strongman as evidence of US support that explains Haftar’s determination to pursue his offensive to seize Tripoli.
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.
Russia insisted on having no criticism of Haftar in the proposed resolution, while the US said it wanted more time to consider the situation.


Air raids kill 12 civilians in militant-held Syrian town: monitor

Updated 22 May 2019
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Air raids kill 12 civilians in militant-held Syrian town: monitor

  • The militant-dominated Idlib region is nominally protected by a buffer zone deal
  • The Observatory said they have no proof of the chemical attacks

BEIRUT: Air strikes by Damascus or its ally Moscow killed 12 civilians in a market in Syria’s Idlib province, a monitor said Wednesday, and denied allegations that the government used chemical weapons.

Another 18 people were wounded when the warplanes hit the militant-held town of Maarat Al-Numan around midnight on Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The market was crowded with people out and about after breaking the daytime fast observed by Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

The Observatory said it had no evidence to suggest the Syrian army had carried out a new chemical attack despite Washington’s announcement it had suspicions.

“We have no proof at all of the attack,” Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.

“We have not documented any chemical attack in the mountains of Latakia,” he said.
The air strikes in Idlib came as heavy clashes raged in the north of neighboring Hama province after the militants launched a counterattack on Tuesday against pro-government forces in the town of Kafr Nabuda.
Fresh fighting on Wednesday took the death toll to 52 — 29 troops and militia and 23 militants, the Observatory said.
It said that the militants had retaken most of the town from government forces who recaptured it on May 8.
The militant-dominated Idlib region is nominally protected by a buffer zone deal, but the regime and its Russian ally have escalated their bombardment of it in recent weeks, seizing several towns on its southern flank.
A militant alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, controls a large part of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

The northern mountains are the only part of Latakia province, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, that are not firmly in the hands of the government.

The Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham accused government forces on Sunday of launching a chlorine gas attack on its fighters in the north of Latakia province.

The Syrian army dismissed the reports as a fabrication, a military source told the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

But the US State Department said on Tuesday it was assessing indications that the government of president Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on Sunday.

“There were no civilians in the area,” Abdel Rahman said.

White Helmets rescue volunteers, who have reported past chemical attacks in rebel-held areas of Syria, told AFP Wednesday that they had no information on the purported gas attack.

International inspectors say Assad’s forces have carried out a series of chemical attacks during the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011.
Russia and rebel ally Turkey inked the buffer zone deal in September to avert a government offensive on the region which threatened humanitarian disaster for its three million residents.
President Bashar Assad’s government has renewed its bombardment of the region since HTS took control in January.
Russia too has stepped up its air strikes in recent weeks as Turkey proved unable to secure implementation of the truce deal by the militants.
The Observatory says more than 180 civilians have been killed in the flare-up since April 30, and the United Nations has said tens of thousands have fled their homes.