Forces allied with the UN-supported government in Libya said Thursday they have regained control of all of Tripoli's entrance and exit points after taking back the airport, and claimed that the siege by rival troops trying to capture the capital for over a year has effectively ended.
The announcement marks another defeat for the east-based Libyan Arab Armed Forces, led by commander Khalifa Hifter who has recently lost several strategic spots in western Libya. Just hours earlier, late on Wednesday, the Tripoli-allied troops said they had retaken Tripoli International Airport, which fell to Hifter’s forces last year.
“In these historic moments, we announce that all municipal boundaries of Tripoli have been liberated,” Mohamed Gnono, spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces, said in a video posted on the social media.
Libya analysts, however, warned it was too early to conclude that the fighting over Tripoli was finished. Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two governments, one in the east and one in the west. Hifter's east-based forces launched an offensive in April last year to take the capital from the west-based Government of National Accord.
“Hifter’s plan to take over Tripoli has been smashed," Col. Salah al-Namroush, an undersecretary with the defense ministry, said after the airport's capture. “Today, we have fulfilled our pledge to liberate Tripoli airport,”
The airport was closed in 2014 following heavy fighting that destroyed much of it. For years, flights were diverted to the Mitiga airport but that one was shut down several times over the past year due to heavy shelling blamed on Hifter’s forces.
The front-line developments came after the UN earlier this week announced that Libya’s warring parties had agreed to resume cease-fire talks. Photos of bombed-out Libyan commercial planes at the airport were posted on the official Facebook page of the Tripoli-allied forces. Videos of the government-affiliated militias celebrating outside the airport circulated online.
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“The fall of Tripoli airport is a symbolic achievement for the GNA," said Claudia Gazzini, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It is the base of Hifter's forces since more than a year and one of the main conflict lines in the capital.”
However, Gazzini said she believed it was too early to conclude that Hifter's offensive is over, given the seesaw nature of the conflict.
“We have seen the boundaries of the conflict shift by kilometers everyday; forward one day and backward another,” she added. “There is still room for a continued offensive. It all depends on how much military backing Hifter’s backers are willing to give him.”
In recent months, the Tripoli militias, backed by Turkey, Italy and Qatar have recaptured some key towns surrounding the capital. However, Hifter's forces, supported by Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have responded with airstrikes.
U.S. and Libyan officials have accused Russia of deploying fighters from the Wagner Group in key battleground areas in Libya.
Last month, the U.S. military accused Russia of deploying 14 aircraft to eastern Libya to help Hifter’s forces, saying the move was part of Moscow’s goal of establishing a foothold in the region that could threaten NATO allies. Russia dismissed those claims and has repeatedly denied any role in fighting in Libya.
On Monday, the UN announced Hifter's forces and the Tripoli militias had agreed to resume cease-fire talks. The UN acting special representative Stephanie Williams held talks Wednesday with a delegation representing Hifter’s forces to follow-up on the agreement. She is expected to hold similar talks with the Tripoli government in “the coming days,” the UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The escalation in fighting in Libya comes against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Libya has about 170 confirmed cases but testing remains scarce. There are fears a large outbreak would have a severe impact, given the protracted conflict and the country’s poor healthcare system.
The UN mission said it hopes the new talks will “mark the beginning of calm on the ground” that can give Libyan authorities the chance to focus their efforts on curbing the spread of the virus.
The North African country slid into civil war following the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.