TRIPOLI: The UN’s Libya envoy warned Thursday of “a widening conflagration” in the country as an armed group attacked a major air base in the south controlled by military commander Khalifa Haftar.
Despite days of heaving fighting, Ghassan Salame told AFP there was a stalemate south of the capital between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) and the government in Tripoli.
“After the very first successes of the Libyan National Army two weeks ago, we are witnessing a military deadlock,” he said.
Fighting broke out on April 4 when Haftar and his LNA, based in the country’s east, launched an offensive to take Tripoli, the western seat of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
The GNA on Thursday issued an arrest warrant against Haftar for allegedly ordering deadly air strikes against civilian areas, its press office said.
A spokesman for the GNA said it was seeking an international arrest warrant against Haftar for “war crimes,” as two UN experts were expected in Tripoli later Thursday to investigate the origin of rocket fire that killed six people the previous day.
Salame told AFP that “international divisions” prior to the assault on Tripoli had emboldened Haftar, who is backed by Russia and Egypt and seen as a bulwark against extremists.
“There are countries that have invested in Mr.Haftar as a champion of the fight against terrorism,” Salame said.
“They will not drop him now even if they do not agree with his attack on Tripoli.”
The Tripoli government’s interior ministry on Thursday accused France of supporting Haftar and said it would halt cooperation with Paris.
France responded to the accusation by saying that it supported “the legitimate government of Prime Minister (Fayez Al-)Serraj and the mediation of the UN for an inclusive political solution in Libya.”
Haftar’s offensive forced the UN to postpone a national conference that was to draw up a roadmap to elections in a bid to turn the page on years of turmoil since the 2011 downfall of Muammar Qaddafi.
The renewed fighting has killed at least 205 people and left more than 900 wounded, the World Health Organization said Thursday, while more than 25,000 have been displaced, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Fighting continued Thursday on several fronts south of Tripoli, AFP journalists on the ground and security sources said.
Reuters reported that an armed group on Thursday attacked a major air base in southern Libya controlled by Haftar who has moved much of his forces north to try to take the capital Tripoli.
Fighting was continuing at the Tamanhint base near Sabha, the main city in southern Libya, Major Hamid Rafaa Al-Khiyali and an eastern military official said. The base is Haftar’s main air base in southern Libya, which he seized earlier this year, though tribesmen with flexible loyalties remain strong in the sparsely populated desert region.
With both sides dug in, Tripoli this week witnessed its heaviest fighting since Haftar launched his offensive, including what the UN described as “indiscriminate rocket fire on a high-density neighborhood” of Tripoli.
World powers have long been divided on how to stabilize Libya, wracked by violence since Qaddafi’s fall. Haftar’s offensive has again highlighted those divisions.
“There are interests in Libya. It’s a country rich in oil,” Salame said. This “makes companies - oil companies, construction companies, etc — salivate.”
But he added that some countries had supported one camp or another for “reasons that are not necessarily economic.”
The UN Security Council has been split on how to address the latest crisis.
Negotiations this week on a draft resolution demanding a cease-fire in Tripoli have failed to yield agreement.
Germany, which holds the council presidency, called for an urgent meeting Thursday, when the council was to hear a briefing on the situation on the ground and “consult on the way forward,” according to a note seen by AFP.
Britain has put forward a draft resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and de-escalation, but Russia objected to clauses that criticized Haftar’s offensive as a threat to Libya’s stability.
Britain put forward a slightly watered-down version on Wednesday but the three African countries on the council - Equatorial Guinea, Ivory Coast, South Africa — blocked it.
They have insisted on including a reference to an African Union statement on the need for all parties fighting in Tripoli to protect civilians, including migrants and refugees, according to documents seen by AFP.
Moscow said even the amended version was “still far away from accommodating our concerns,” according to a note from the Russian UN mission.
The revised text did not single out Haftar’s forces, but instead expressed “grave concern at military activity” near Tripoli, “including the launching of a military offensive by the LNA.”
Britain had hoped to hold a vote before Friday, but that now looks unlikely. Diplomats said the United States appeared to be dragging its feet rather than pushing for a quick adoption of the draft resolution.