Libya’s Haftar forces close in on Tripoli, capture former international airport

Forces loyal to Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar say they have advanced into the southern outskirts of the country’s capital city and seized the former Tripoli International Airport in a dangerous escalation.

Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for Haftar’s self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), said the forces were in full control of Tarhouna and Aziziya, two towns near Tripoli, as well as their villages nearby.

“Aziziya is now under our control, the road to Aziziya that reaches Zeltan is also under our control. In addition, Alhira district is under our control as well as Tarhouna,” Mismari said.

“This is considered a great achievement and progress towards Tripoli, it means that we are technically inside Tripoli,” he added.

Earlier Friday, forces allied to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), administered by Fayez al-Sarraj, had pushed back Haftar’s forces from a key checkpoint less than 30 km  from Tripoli.

Media reports said 145 LNA fighters had been captured in Zawiya, west of the Libyan capital, and 60 vehicles belonging to pro-Haftar forces had also been confiscated.

The recent escalation prompted the UN Security Council to call for an emergency meeting behind closed doors on Friday.

It came as UN chief Antonio Guterres left the chaos-wracked country after meeting Haftar to try to avert civil war.

“I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter.

Haftar on Thursday announced that his forces would begin an offensive against Tripoli, which is currently controlled by the county’s internationally-recognized government.

The LNA claimed that its advance on the country’s west was meant to root out what it called “terrorist groups” in the restive region.

The United Nations is scheduled to hold a conference later this month in the southwestern Libyan city of Ghadames to discuss a political solution to the conflict and stabilize country.

Libya has been the scene of increasing violence since 2011, when former dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled from power after an uprising and a NATO military intervention.

His ouster created a huge power vacuum, leading to chaos and the emergence of numerous militant outfits, including the Takfiri Daesh terrorist group.

The oil-rich country is now divided between two rival governments — the House of Representatives, based in the eastern city of Tobruk, and the government of Sarraj, or the Tripoli-based GNA.

Haftar and the LNA have been backed by certain Arab governments, including the United Arab Emirates and Libya’s neighbor Egypt. Some European governments that once contributed to the NATO military operation to oust Gaddafi have also offered Haftar some diplomatic support.

On Friday, Russia stressed that it had not assisted Haftar’s forces in their latest push to take over Tripoli, calling for a political solution to the recent flare-up of tensions in Libya.

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