Libya’s internationally recognised government has made new gains on the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli, capturing three military bases from renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
In a statement on Saturday, military spokesman Mohamed Gnunu said the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) now controlled the Yarmouk, al-Sawarikh and Hamza camps south of the capital.
“Our heroic forces are chasing the remnants of Haftar’s terrorist militia and are continuing their progress,” Gnunu said on his Twitter account, without elaborating.
With Turkish help, the GNA has seized a string of towns in recent weeks, captured a strategic airbase near the Tunisian border, and destroyed several of the LNA’s Russian-made air defence systems.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from Tripoli, said the GNA’s gains were a major setback for Haftar.
“Al-Yarmouk military camp had been set by the LNA as some kind of central command to run the battles in southern Tripoli,” he said.
“The base was controlled by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group … The government has told displaced civilians not to return to their homes because LNA forces have set up land mines in civilian areas in the same way ISIL set up IEDs in the city of Sirte in 2016.”
Saturday’s announcement comes days after Ahmad al-Mesmari, a spokesman for Haftar’s eastern-based forces, said his fighters would pull back from some positions south of Tripoli.
The withdrawal, he said, was part of a “redeployment”.
In a two-minute audio speech addressed to his forces on Saturday, Haftar said they “will fight and fight” against what he called “Turkish colonialism”.
“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,” Haftar said in the speech.
Fighting has recently escalated between Libya’s warring sides despite international calls for a humanitarian truce in the country to focus efforts on battling an outbreak of the new coronavirus.
Earlier this week, GNA forces seized al-Watiya airbase, close to the Tunisian border, a strategic base in Haftar’s offensive to capture Tripoli.
US President Donald Trump called for a “rapid de-escalation” of the Libyan conflict on a call with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday.
The GNA’s surge has put pressure on Haftar’s 13-month campaign to seize Tripoli and has squeezed his foreign backers Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement: “President Trump reiterated concern over worsening foreign interference in Libya and the need for rapid de-escalation.”
As the LNA has promised to respond with a massive air campaign, diplomats have warned of the risk of a new round of escalation with the warring sides’ external backers pouring in new weaponry.
Turkey “will not bow to threats by Haftar or anyone else”, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said separately in an interview on NTV.
“The international community must take a stand against Haftar. We need to go back to the table for a political solution as soon as possible,” Kalin said.
The year-long battle for Tripoli has left hundreds dead, including dozens of civilians, and displaced more than 200,000 people.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES