- Associated Press - Monday, May 27, 2019

CAIRO (AP) — Heavy clashes have been slowly nearing the center of Libya’s capital, Tripoli, as forces loyal to the military commander Khalifa Hifter battle to seize power, an official and residents said Monday.

Hifter opened a military offensive on the Libyan capital of Tripoli in early April despite commitments to move toward elections in the North African country.

Libya is divided between Hifter, whose self-styled Libyan National Army controls the east and much of the south, and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, who runs the U.N.-supported but weak government in Tripoli.

In recent weeks, the clashes had receded with the start of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.

But in the past couple of days, the capital’s siege has intensified. Hifter’s forces have pushed ahead in Tripoli’s eastern and southern suburbs. The LNA’s media office said they have taken control of areas near the Tripoli International Airport, which was largely destroyed in the civil war following the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011.



Saraj al-Majbri, an aid to the LNA’s chief of staff, said its forces have also made gains in the area of Salah al-Deen, a few kilometers from the city center.

He claimed the forces’ march toward the city center had been slowed in the past weeks because they did not want to use heavy artillery in populated areas.

Two residents said heavy fighting was taking place along a strategic road linking the capital with the airport, which the LNA already controls. They spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.

Hifter has said he won’t stop his offensive as long as the militias remained in control of Tripoli - and, he claimed, the militias remain in control of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj’s U.N.-supported government. Six rounds of talks with the government had failed to strike a political deal, he said.

“In the last round of negotiations, I realized that it’s not him who decides,” Hifter said. “Of course a political solution remains the objective, but to get back to politics we have to finish with the militias.”

Hifter’s comments came in an interview last week with France’s Journal du Dimanche during his visit to Paris, where President Emmanuel Macron urged the Libyan leader to work toward a cease-fire and a return to the political process. Hifter and the Tripoli government had agreed to hold nationwide elections in the divided country after a Paris meeting in May 2018.

But in the interview, Hifter lashed out at the U.N. special envoy, saying that Ghassan Salame was no longer impartial.

“He has now taken sides,” he said, before adding: “Partition of Libya is maybe what our adversaries want. This is maybe what Ghassan Salame also wants.”

Forces loyal to the U.N.-supported government said they have hindered LNA advances and cut off supply roads to Hifter’s forces in the southern areas of the capital.

The Tripoli-based government said earlier this week that an airstrike by the LNA targeted a civilian facility located in a high populated area, where lawmakers in Tripoli used to meet.

The U.N. mission in Libya condemned the airstrike along with a reported kidnapping of a member of a government advisory body.

The advisory body said Mohammed Abu Ghamga was kidnapped last week from his home town of Qasr Ben Ghashir, some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) south of the capital, after it was seized by Hifter’s forces. It accused the LNA of kidnapping Abu Ghamga, a charge denied by its media office.

The fighting has killed at least 562 people, including 40 civilians, a U.N. agency said Monday. It added that among the killed, were two health workers, when shelling hit their ambulance cars south of Tripoli on Thursday.

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