TUNIS – Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is pulling back from all Tripoli frontlines, it said on Wednesday, calling into question its ability to sustain a year-long offensive aimed at seizing the capital.
The LNA announced overnight it was withdrawing 2-3 km (1-2 miles) to ease conditions for Tripoli residents at the end of Ramadan, but the move follows the loss on Monday of a key stronghold.
The eastern forces’ setbacks underscore the shifting dynamics of the conflict since Turkey intervened in January to help the U.N.-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) stave off Haftar’s assault.
Libya has been split since 2014 between rival factions based in Tripoli and in the east, in a sometimes chaotic war that has drawn in outside powers and a flood of foreign arms and mercenaries.
Backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt, the LNA still holds all of eastern Libya and much of the south, including most oil facilities, but its presence in the northwest, where Libya’s population is concentrated, has come under intense pressure.
The GNA last month took a string of small towns linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border. On Monday it took Watiya, the LNA’s only airbase near Tripoli and a big strategic prize. On Tuesday it took three small towns to the southwest.
On Wednesday morning, clashes were rocking Asaba, south of Tripoli, while rockets were striking the LNA’s most important stronghold in the region, the town of Tarhouna, an eyewitness said.
Last month GNA Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said capturing Tarhouna would end Haftar’s campaign to seize Tripoli but that the fighting in the capital was the priority.
The LNA military source said that in Tripoli the LNA had completed a gradual withdrawal from the Salahedin battle front, one of the main theatres of fighting in the capital.
Residential areas, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in Tripoli have been bombarded frequently for months.
Addressing the Security Council on Tuesday, the U.N.’s acting Libya envoy warned of a new escalation in the conflict and urged pressure on countries backing the warring sides.
However, diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political settlement have made little headway, as more foreign fighters and weapons systems have poured in despite months of near stalemate following Haftar’s initial offensive last year.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, his supporters the UAE and Russia issued separate calls for a ceasefire and political solution to the conflict.
Previous ceasefires have been short lived and the GNA has accused the LNA and its allies of using truces to build up military supplies and prepare for new attacks.
At Watiya, the GNA seized what it says is a Russian-made Pantsir air defence system supplied to the LNA by the UAE. It says it has put several others out of action with airstrikes in recent days, which the LNA has denied.
Turkish drones and air defences appear to have played a key role in GNA advances in recent weeks, with repeated claims of strikes at LNA supply chains from the east.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday that as a result of Turkish training and advice “the balance in Libya changed significantly”.