The international community has called for calm and restraint in Libya as forces loyal to General Haftar moved steadily closer to the capital Tripoli.
On Thursday, Haftar’s forces took over Gharyan, a town 100km south of Tripoli. By 3 pm local time on Friday, his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) had seized Azizia and Souq Khamis about 40 km away from the capital and were engaged in fighting with Tripoli militias from Qasr Ben Ghasir, 20 km south of Tripoli.
The moves, supported by statements from official LNA sources that Haftar had personally given military orders for his troops to enter the city and instructed its 1.2 million inhabitants to put up white flags in their homes if they wished to stay safe, prompted widespread alarm and condemnation.
A joint statement issued by the governments of France, Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom, and the United States urged all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions “which are hindering prospects for UN political mediation.” The UK requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.
Despite the public condemnation from the UAE, Abdulrahman al-Suwaihli, the influential former Chairman of the High Council of State in Tripoli, blamed the advance of Haftar’s LNA on the UAE, which was visited by Haftar in March amidst much publicity from the LNA.
“That the blame games are starting is not surprising,” said Professor Jonathan Githens-Mazer, a Libya expert at the University of Exeter. “France has been working with the LNA, but as with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, that has been about anti-terrorist coordination and countering Daesh (ISIS), not about invading Tripoli. The UAE’s public condemnation speaks volumes, and Riyadh will no doubt be in full agreement,” he added.
The European Union issued its own statement calling on “decision makers” to “act responsibly and finally put the national interest first,” in a coded reference to both General Haftar and to Tripoli militia commanders. “We urge all parties to immediately de-escalate tensions and cease all acts of provocation. There can be no military solution to the Libyan crisis,” the statement concluded.
Both statements echoed earlier words from United Nations Secretary General António Guterres that “there is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country.”
Guterres tweeted his statement from Tripoli, where he had been personally making final preparations for the UN-supported National Conference aimed at finding a solution to the political impasse in Libya, before leaving the country late on Friday.
The fate of the conference, a comprehensive reconciliation process due to be implemented in Ghadames this month, remained uncertain with the LNA declaring that the army was ready to secure the conference and prepare a “suitable environment for success.”
Residents of Tripoli, inured to the ups and downs of the conflicts and rivalries which have ravaged the country since 2011 when long-term ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was ousted with the help of NATO airpower, were clearly disturbed by Haftar’s LNA advances.
While some continued to go to work on Friday, traffic flows were notably reduced as people stayed at home. As real news and also fake stories exaggerating the LNA’s advances spread on social media, a palpable sense of panic increased in the capital.
Some Government of National Accord (GNA) ministers fled the capital. GNA Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj issued three directives ordering GNA Military Region Commanders to raise alert levels, re-centralize their units, and use force and airstrikes to defend civilians and critical facilities against “terrorists, criminals, and those outside the legitimacy.”
However, a GNA source said that lack of leadership by the GNA as well as the growing influence of Moscow had been key components to the crisis. “Haftar is responding in his way to the lack of political power in Tripoli and he is being egged on by Russian advisers, who would like to strike a blow against NATO,” said the source.