UN chief to meet eastern Libyan strongman as fighters close in on Tripoli

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By News Agency of Nigeria

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was due to meet Eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi on Friday as fighters close in on Tripoli.

This meeting is in a bid to avert renewed civil war as his forces advanced on the capital Tripoli to challenge the internationally recognised government.

The military thrust by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which is allied to a parallel administration based in the East, marked a dangerous escalation of a power struggle that has dragged on since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

LNA forces on Thursday took Gharyan, about 80 km (50 miles) South of Tripoli after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

But they failed to take a checkpoint about 30 km west of the capital in a bid to close the coastal road to Tunisia.

An LNA-allied militia withdrew overnight from so-called Gate 27, leaving it abandoned in the morning, a Reuters reporter said.

Meanwhile militias allied to the UN-backed Tripoli government moved more machinegun-mounted pickups from the coastal city of Misrata to Tripoli to defend it against Haftar’s forces.

The escalation surprised the United Nations, whose Secretary-General Guterres had been in Tripoli this week to help organise a national reconciliation/national conference planned for later this month.

Guterres, who spent Thursday night in the heavily fortified UN compound in a Tripoli suburb, was flying to Benghazi on Friday to meet Haftar.

He will also go to Tobruk, another Eastern city, to meet lawmakers of the House of Representatives, which is also allied to Haftar.

“My aim remains the same: avoid a military confrontation. I reiterate that there is no military solution for the Libyan crisis, only a political one,” Guterres said on Twitter.

Assembly President Aguila Saleh welcomed the offensive, a spokesman said.

Haftar also enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to UN reports.

Germany called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council due to the military escalation.

Russia said it was not helping Haftar’s forces and it supported a negotiated political settlement that ruled out any new bloodshed.

“The situation should be resolved peacefully,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Former colonial power Italy, which lies across the Mediterranean from Libya, was very worried by the turn of events, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said.

“We need to throw water on the fire, not petrol on the fire. I hope that people, acting out of economic or business self-interest, are not looking for a military solution, which would be devastating,’’ Salvini said.

The United Nations and Western countries have been trying to mediate between Serraj and Haftar, who met in Abu Dhabi in March to discuss a power-sharing deal.

The conference, the United Nations is helping to organise is aimed at forging agreement on a road map for elections to resolve the prolonged instability in Libya.

Libya is an oil producer and transit point for refugees and migrants trekking across the Sahara with the aim of reaching Europe.