Battle for Tripoli escalates as UN meets over crisis

Tripoli (AFP) - The battle for Libya's capital intensified as the UN Security Council met Wednesday to discuss the crisis gripping the North African country, where armed rivals are locked in a deadly power struggle.

The closed-door talks in New York come a day after the United Nations postponed a Libyan national conference aimed at drawing up an election roadmap because of fighting raging on Tripoli's doorstep.

Libya has been riven by divisions since the NATO-backed overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with various armed groups and two parallel governments vying for territory and oil wealth.

Heavy clashes were heard Wednesday in the Ain Zara district on the southeastern outskirts of Tripoli as military strongman Khalifa Haftar's forces pressed an assault aimed at taking the capital from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

"The clashes have intensified. We're afraid to leave the house," a resident told AFP by telephone from the area, where roads were reported to have been blocked, hindering people's efforts to flee.

The violence has already displaced thousands and left several dozen people dead.

The Libyan Red Crescent said it had evacuated civilians on Wednesday morning but had so far only had access to combat zones controlled by the GNA.

Led by Fayez al-Sarraj, the GNA's authority is not recognised by a parallel administration in the east of the country, which is allied with Haftar.

Thirty families were evacuated from Ain Zara and Wadi Rabi, a district further south, to reception centres or to homes of relatives and friends, the Red Crescent said on its Facebook page.

The UN Security Council began meeting behind closed doors to consider next steps, with diplomats saying Britain was discussing a possible draft resolution.

"We agree with the secretary-general that there should be a ceasefire but at the moment we do not have a text," British Ambassador Karen Pierce told reporters ahead of the talks.

- 'Cat and mouse' -

Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls swathes of the country's east, said it had seized a barracks in the Aziziya area around 50 kilometres (31 miles) south of Tripoli after "ferocious clashes".

It said several fighters loyal to the UN-backed government had been detained and their weapons seized.

"For the moment, it's still a game of cat and mouse," said a commander from a pro-GNA group.

"We're still organising ourselves. The war hasn't truly started," he told AFP.

The internationally recognised government carried out several air raids against LNA positions south of Tripoli, and also hit supply lines in central Libya, GNA spokesman Colonel Mohamed Gnounou said Tuesday.

Haftar's forces appear to be advancing on two fronts, from the south and southeast of Tripoli, while coastal roads to the east and west of the city are defended by fighters loyal to the GNA.

- Children at risk -

Haftar has defied international calls to halt the surprise offensive launched on Thursday.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was "deeply concerned by the situation in Libya."

"The current military operation and advance on Tripoli are increasing the suffering of the Libyan people and putting civilian lives at risk," he said in a statement.

The UN children's agency (UNICEF) said "nearly half a million children in Tripoli and tens of thousands more in the western areas are at a direct risk due to the intensification of fighting".

The GNA's health ministry on Monday put the death toll in the fighting at 35. Haftar's forces have said 14 of their fighters have died.

The UN said the clashes have displaced some 3,400 people.

Although casualties remain limited so far, the International Crisis Group warned further escalation "could precipitate a humanitarian disaster".

"If unleashed, a full-fledged offensive could become a proxy war between regional powers and cause innumerable casualties as well as immense devastation," it said in a report Wednesday.

- Peace efforts stalled -

International efforts to end the Libyan conflict have repeatedly failed.

Rival leaders agreed last year to hold elections before December 10, 2018 under a French plan, but that vote never materialised.

The national conference, which had been scheduled for April 14-16 in the central city of Ghadames, aimed to fix dates for legislative and presidential elections, and work towards a new constitution.

UN envoy Ghassan Salame, announcing its postponement, said: "We cannot ask people to take part in the conference during gunfire and air strikes."

He expressed hope the meeting would take place "as soon as possible".

Haftar, whose key allies are the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, is a former Kadhafi military chief who has emerged as a major player in Libya's political struggle.

His offensive threatens to plunge the country into a full-blown civil war and has thrown into sharp relief the divisions between world powers over how to end the chaos that has riven Libya since 2011.