Libyan army commander Khalifa Hifter on Thursday ordered his forces to march on Tripoli, the capital of the UN-backed government, sparking fears of a major showdown with rival militias.
The order to his Libya National Army posted in an audio recording online came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the North African country and expressed fears of new confrontations. It put at risk upcoming peace talks brokered by the UN aimed at drawing a roadmap for new elections.
Hifter is allied with the east-based administration at odds with the UN-backed government based in Tripoli. Alongside the two rival administrations, mostly Islamic militias wield considerable influence and control large swathes of territory in the vast North African nation.
Hifter described his forces' move as a "victorious march" to "shake the lands under the feet of the unjust bunch."
"We are coming Tripoli, we are coming," he said.
Hifter urged his forces to enter the city peacefully and only raise their weapons "in the face of those who seek injustice and prefer confrontation and fighting."
He also urged his forces not to open fire on any civilians or those who are unarmed.
"Those who lay down their weapons are safe, and those who raise the white banner are safe," he said.
Hifter's message, which was posted on the Facebook page of the army's media office, comes a day after his forces edged closer to Tripoli and took over the town of Gharyan, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Tripoli without much fighting.
The announcement of an initiative on Tripoli comes days before a UN-brokered conference aimed at bridging the gap among Libya's factions to draw a road map for new elections and end the country's split.
Guterres is the second UN chief to visit Libya since the 2011 uprising that toppled Gadhafi. Ban Ki-moon visited in October 2014. Libya, the oil-rich North African country, fell in series of civil wars in different towns and cities, where heavily armed militias fought over power and oil.
Guterres urged Libya's warring factions to de-escalate during a press conference in Tripoli shortly after Hifter made his declaration on the Tripoli offensive.
He said there is no military solution to Libya's war and that for the sake of the upcoming peace conference this month among Libyan factions, de-escalation is needed.
"There can't be national conference in these circumstances," he said.
Earlier, on Twitter, Guterres said he is "deeply concerned by the military movement taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation."
"There is no military solution," he said. "Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems."
Gharyan is the closest Hifter's forces have made it to Tripoli.
"I am sipping coffee now in Gharyan," Hifter's top aide Abdel-Salam al-Hassi told The Associated Press over the phone. "God willing, we will enter the rest of the cities without clashes."
Skirmishes were reported overnight in the mountain district of al-Assabaah, near Gharyan, in which two people — a resident and a militiaman — were killed, according to the media office of Hifter's forces.
Hifter's spokesman, Ahmed al-Mesmari, said LNA forces will give the militiamen in control of the capital the option of surrendering or staying home.
"You choose between staying home, handing over your weapons, or raising the white banner," he said, addressing the militias in control of Tripoli.
He said there will be no dialogue with the militias, whom he described as "terrorists," adding that the "game is over" and the "rifle, the artillery, and the jet are the ones speaking now."
He also vowed to protect the upcoming peace conference saying the military movement is a separate track from politics.
"The army has nothing to do with politics or with political movement by the United Nations," he said.
The European Union's mission to Libya on Thursday also expressed concern over "the military buildup underway in Libya and the escalatory rhetoric which seriously risks leading to an uncontrollable confrontation."
Hifter's army has spread its footprint from eastern Libya where it first battled mostly Islamic militias and Islamist groups, starting in 2014. The campaign then extended southward as Hifter's forces took control of key towns and border crossings earlier this year and now is pushing west, toward Tripoli.
Hifter, who is backed by Egypt and Gulf Arab nations such as the United Arab Emirates, has labeled his rivals as "terrorists" and said in more than one occasion that "liberating" Tripoli is his ultimate goal.
Since Gadhafi's ouster and killing, Libya has descended into chaos, with two rival administrations and an array of militias fighting over power and oil fields.
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