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Libyan militias capture commander Hifter’s forces marching on Tripoli

The UN Security Council called on forces to halt all military movement.

Libyan militia commander General Khalifa Hifter (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
Libyan militia commander General Khalifa Hifter (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

Militias in western Libya fought forces under rival army commander Khalifa Hifter on Friday, capturing 100 of his soldiers and waging an air strike on one of his positions a day after he declared an offensive to seize Tripoli.

The violence came as the UN chief wrapped up his visit on Friday aimed at avoiding an expanded conflict and said he left with a “heavy heart and deep concern”.

The escalation comes after forces commanded by Mr Hifter, who runs the self-styled Libya National Army based in the country’s east, pushed westward.

He brought his troops closer to Tripoli, which is controlled by the UN-backed Presidential Council and Government of National Accord and supporting militias.

A UN diplomat said late on Friday that Mr Hifter’s forces were reported to be on the outskirts of Tripoli.

So were militias from the western city of Misrata who now control everything from the eastern edges of the capital to Libya’s western border, the diplomat said.

A showdown between Mr Hifter’s army and the militias could plunge Libya into another spasm of violence, possibly the worst since the 2011 civil war that toppled and later killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

It would also put at risk upcoming peace talks between rivals brokered by the UN and aimed at drawing a roadmap for new elections. Those talks are scheduled for April 14-16.

The UN Security Council held an emergency closed-door meeting on Friday at Britain’s request and called on Mr Hifter’s forces to halt all military movements.

It also urged all Libya forces “to de-escalate and halt military activity”.

After a briefing by the UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, the council said there can be no military solution to the conflict.

Council members “called on all parties to resume dialogue and deliver on their commitments to engage constructively with the UN political process”.

Mr Hifter’s troops on Thursday captured the town of Gharyan, some 31 miles south of Tripoli without a fight, putting them closer to the militias than ever before.

Mr Hifter then ordered his forces to march on the capital, saying in an audio recording posted online: “We are coming Tripoli, we are coming.”

He also urged his forces to enter the city peacefully and only raise their weapons “in the face of those who seek injustice and prefer confrontation and fighting”.

The march appeared to have faced a set-back on Friday, however.

Militias from the western cities of Zawiya and Misrata, which control Tripoli, said they had mobilised to confront Mr Hifter.

I am leaving Libya with a heavy heart and deep concern UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

“We are the revolutionaries and the elders … we declare we are in full mobilisation and war,” they said in a video statement posted online.

A group of allied militias called the Joint Tripoli Protection Force based in the area around the Libyan capital announced they would also deploy to repel Mr Hifter’s offensive.

Over 100 of Mr Hifter’s soldiers were captured by Zawiya militias, said army spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari. He said the soldiers’ commander was being investigated.

Anti-Hifter activists on social media posted pictures of what they described as militiamen from Zawiya capturing dozens of Hifter’s forces and armoured vehicles carrying stickers reading “106th Battalion”.

The unit is known to be commanded by Mr Hifter’s son, Khaled. It is one of the largest units Mr Hifter has deployed to march on Tripoli.

Also, Misrata militias launched an air strike targeting Mr Hifter’s position at the foot of the mountains of Nafusa, he said. He did not elaborate on the number of casualties.

The renewed fighting came a day after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrived for his first visit to Libya as UN chief.

On Friday, Mr Guterres went to the eastern region, which is the seat of a rival administration and parliament that Mr Hifter is aligned with.

Mr Guterres met with Agila Saleh, head of the east-based parliament, according to spokesman Abdullah Ablahig.

“I am leaving Libya with a heavy heart and deep concern,” he told reporters at the airport shortly after meeting with Mr Hifter.

“I still hope, if possible, to avoid armed confrontation around Tripoli,” he said. “The United Nations remains available to facilitate any political solution.”



From Belfast Telegraph