Eastern Libyan forces were set to move in on Libya’s capital Tripoli on Sunday after the head of the eastern parliament said they would press an offensive launched a week ago under military commander Khalifa Haftar.
“We need to get rid of militias and terrorist groups,” Aguila Saleh, head of the House of Representatives allied to Haftar, said on Saturday, using a reference eastern officials often make to describe forces allied to the Tripoli government.
“We assure the residents of Tripoli that the campaign to liberate Tripoli will be limited and not violate any freedoms but restore security and fight terrorism,” Saleh told lawmakers in a session in the main eastern city of Benghazi.
His comments came as an air raid by Haftar’s forces hit the yard of a school on the southern outskirts of Tripoli, where eastern forces have been confronted by forces allied to Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally recognised government.
In a possible new front, the eastern Libya National Army (LNA) was readying a unit to move to the Es Sider and Ras Lanuf oil ports, Libya’s biggest, on the eastern coast, anticipating an attack from an armed group allied to al-Serraj, eastern military officials said.
“The force will strengthen the protection of the ports,” one official said, asking not to be named.
For its part the Tripoli government will agree to a ceasefire only if the LNA troops return back east, government spokesperson Mohanad Younes told reporters.
Forces loyal to al-Serraj’s government have so far kept the eastern offensive at bay. Fierce fighting has broken out around a disused airport about 11km from the centre.
An eastern military source said a warplane belonging to the LNA had fired at a military camp in an eastern Tripoli suburb.
In a separate raid the yard of a primary school was hit, a Reuters news agency reporter at the scene said. A LNA official said the plane had targeted a camp of al-Serraj’s forces.
Saleh also said the United Nations mission to Libya and al-Serraj’s government had been controlled by armed groups and had failed to expel them from the capital, and promised Libya would hold long-delayed elections after the Tripoli operation ends.
The LNA’s push into Tripoli is the latest outbreak of a cycle of conflict since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. It has continued despite international calls for a halt in an offensive that risks causing many civilian casualties.
Last week the European Union had called on the LNA to stop its attacks, having agreed on a statement after France and Italy sparred over how to handle the conflict.
Haftar’s offensive had surprised the UN, which had been planning to hold a national conference on April 14 to prepare Libya for elections.
The latest battle had by Friday killed 75 people, mainly fighters but including 17 civilians, and wounded another 323, according to UN tallies. About 13,000 people have been forced out of their homes.
As well as the humanitarian cost, the conflict threatens to disrupt oil supplies, boost migration to Europe, scupper a UN peace plan, and allow armed groups to exploit the chaos.
Haftar, 75, a former general in Gaddafi’s army who later joined the revolt against him, moved his troops out of their eastern stronghold to take the oil-rich desert south earlier this year, before sweeping up to Tripoli at the start of April.