TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised government captured the last major stronghold of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar near Tripoli on Friday, capping the sudden collapse of his 14-month offensive on the capital.
Military sources in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) said their forces had withdrawn from the town of Tarhouna, heading towards Sirte, far along the coast, and the airbase of al-Jufra in central Libya. The LNA made no immediate official comment.
The advance extends the control of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and allied forces across most of northwest Libya, reversing many of Haftar’s gains from last year when he raced towards Tripoli.
The GNA has been backed by Turkey, while Haftar, whose LNA still controls the east and oil fields in the south, has been supported by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
The United Nations has started holding talks with both sides for a ceasefire deal in recent days, though previous truces have not stuck.
The GNA gains could entrench the de facto partition of Libya into zones controlled by rival eastern and western governments whose foreign backers compete for regional sway.
“What is happening now is the beginning of the division of Libya,” Saeed Mugheeb, a pro-Haftar lawmaker, said in a statement that echoed comments from others in the east.
Turkish military support for the GNA, with drone strikes, air defences and a supply of allied Syrian fighters, was key to its recent successes. Ankara regards Libya as crucial to defending its interests in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, the LNA still retains its foreign support. Washington said last week Moscow had sent warplanes to LNA-held Jufra, though Russia and the LNA denied this.
The United Nations says weapons and fighters have flooded into the country in defiance of an arms embargo, risking a deadlier escalation. Meanwhile, a blockade of oil ports by eastern-based forces has almost entirely cut off energy revenue and both administrations face a looming financial crisis.
Located in the hills southeast of Tripoli, Tarhouna had functioned as a forward base for Haftar’s assault on the capital. Its swift fall suggests Haftar’s foreign supporters were less willing to sustain his bid to take over the entire country once Turkey intervened decisively to stop him.
The GNA operations room said in a statement that its forces had captured Tarhouna after entering from four sides. Some residents fled towards the east, and the Kani family, which had controlled Tarhouna since 2014 also withdrew, LNA military sources said.
Videos and photographs posted online appeared to show GNA forces inside Tarhouna cheering and hugging each other and firing into the air.
“The Libyan government forces are rapidly moving in an organised manner and with armed drones. There could be a solution at the table, but Haftar’s forces are losing ground in every sense,” said a Turkish official.
Amnesty International, which documented recent threats of revenge killings in Tarhouna by GNA-affiliated fighters, called for an end to retaliatory attacks against civilians by both sides.
GNA forces implicated in retaliatory acts as they advanced west of Tripoli in April have not yet been held to account, Amnesty said. Both sides had carried out indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas round Tripoli in recent weeks, while extensive landmines and booby traps were laid before the LNA and Russian military contractors supporting it retreated, it added.
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