Saturday 21 September 2019

Libya crisis escalates as airport hit by rebel attack

Fayez al-Sarraj: Libyan prime minister since 2016 after UN deal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Fayez al-Sarraj: Libyan prime minister since 2016 after UN deal. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Roland Oliphant

Fighting for control of the Libyan capital escalated dramatically yesterday, when rebel forces carried out an airstrike on Tripoli's only operational airport.

The attack came amid reports that the internationally recognised government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj had begun conscripting migrants held in detention centres to fight against troops loyal to General Khalifa Haftar.

At least one jet was seen firing rockets at the Mitiga airport in northern Tripoli yesterday. The airport said it would be closed for the foreseeable future. No casualties were reported.

At least 2,800 people have been displaced since Gen Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an assault on Tripoli last week.

The LNA said yesterday that 19 of its soldiers had been killed in recent days. The Tripoli-based health ministry, on the government side, said at least 25 people including fighters and civilians had been killed and 80 wounded in fighting to the south of the capital.

The World Health Organisation said two doctors had been killed while treating civilians and trying to evacuate patients from combat zones in the city.

Gen Haftar announced his assault on Thursday, citing the need to clear the city of "terrorists". Tracking progress on the ground is difficult partly because both sides are made up of loose alliances of militia groups rather than professional armies.

But despite clashes in the southern suburbs, the LNA advance appears to have made little progress. Residents said LNA troops retreated from the former international airport, 25km south of the city centre, yesterday.

Analysts say Gen Haftar's assault has compelled the disparate militia groups who control western Libya to band together, presenting a harder target than he may have anticipated. "He created that alliance by going in too early, too strong," said Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank.

"It prompted potential opponents who were considering siding with Haftar to do an about face and fight him."

Mr Harchaoui warned that the situation could "worsen dramatically".

"If the airstrikes continue escalating, you could see the two camps committed in a very blind manner to saving face, and that means a lot of destruction," he said.

Meanwhile reports emerged that the internationally recognised government is offering migrants held in detention centres their freedom in exchange for military service.

Thousands of asylum seekers, many of them sub-Saharan Africans, are stuck in detention centres along the coast around Tripoli, hoping to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

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