Libya's Hifter: Tripoli campaign to continue despite losses

CAIRO (AP) — The military commander of eastern Libya-based forces said Saturday that they will continue fighting forces loosely allied with the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli, even though his campaign has suffered setbacks in recent weeks.

Khalifa Hifter, commander of the self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, has been waging a campaign for over a year trying to capture the capital. The military tide has been reversed in recent weeks, and his forces lost several towns and a key airbase.

Hifter’s side controls the country’s east and most of the south, while the U.N.-supported government controls areas in the west, including Tripoli.

In a two-minute audio speech addressed to his forces, Hifter said they “will fight and fight” against what he called “Turkish colonialism.”

Turkey is aiding the embattled government in Tripoli. It has recently stepped up its military support with armored drones, air defenses and Syrian mercenaries with links to extremist groups. That has helped turn the tide against Hifter’s forces, which are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russian mercenaries.

“To our brave officers and soldiers, you are fighting a holy war that is open to all fronts, a comprehensive war in which there is nothing but victory,” Hifter said in the speech. “Every Turkish solider, mercenary sent by (Turkey's President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan to Libya and every traitor who has allowed the occupier to return is a target of our armed forces.”

Col. Mohamed Gnounou, a spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces, said Saturday that they seized two military camps on the outskirts of Tripoli that Hifter’s forces had captured at the beginning of their campaign last year.

Hifter’s side said its fighters were merely completing a retreat of 2 to 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) from Tripoli’s southern reaches to allow families to visit each other safely in celebration of the Eid al-Fitr holiday Sunday. It also said they had retaken the Yarmouk military camp and killed “large number of the militias" and captured a dozen others. It said they shot down two Turkish drones over southern Tripoli that were targeting their forces.

The claims of the two sides could not be independently verified.

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, called Saturday for a halt to the “destabilizing flow” of Russian and other foreign military equipment and mercenaries into Libya.

“The needless offensive against Tripoli must end so all foreign forces can depart and Libyan leaders who are prepared to lay down their weapons can come together in peaceful dialogue on the issues that divide them,” Norland said during a phone call with Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj.

Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya's parliament, called for the U.N. Security Council to withdraw its recognition of the Tripoli-based government and appoint a new administration representing all Libyan regions.

In an address aimed at the Libyan people on the eve of Eid el-Fitr, he also called for clearing Tripoli of “terrorist groups” and a fair distribution of the nation's oil and gas revenues.

The escalation in fighting comes despite increased international pressure on both sides to return to negotiating a political settlement and to halt the violence over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Libya has reported at least 75 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, including three deaths.

The oil-rich country has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. Libya has since split between the rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups.

The turmoil in Libya has steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervene despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.