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An aerial view shows military vehicles on a road in Libya on Thursday.—Reuters
An aerial view shows military vehicles on a road in Libya on Thursday.—Reuters

TRIPOLI: Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar ordered his troops on Thursday to “advance” on Tripoli, seat of the internationally-recognised unity government, after UN chief Antonio Guterres warned against a major flare-up.

“The time has come,” Haftar said in an audio message released online by his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army.

Haftar’s forces announced on Wednesday they were gearing up for an offensive in the west of the country to purge it of “terrorists and mercenaries”.

Following that statement, a convoy of LNA vehicles pushed towards the city of Gharyan, some 100 kilometres from Tripoli, witnesses and military sources said.

Commander Abdessalem Al-Hassi said on Thursday that his forces had entered into the city without a fight.

But at least four sources in the city denied this, and a Gharyan official said there were “ongoing efforts to avoid a confrontation” betw­een rival fighters who divide the city. Dozens of militias have fought for control of the North African country since a Nato-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Qadhafi in 2011.

Haftar’s forces have eme­rged as a key player, opposing the government in Tripoli and backing a parallel administration in the east.

Unity government chief Fayez al-Sarraj condemned Haftar’s “escalation” and said he had ordered loyalist forces to prepare to “face all threats”. His interior ministry announced a “state of maximum alert” and powerful armed groups from Libya’s western city of Misrata said they were ready to halt Haftar’s advance.

The rise in tensions came as United Nations chief Guterres visited Tripoli ahead of a planned conference later this month to hammer out a roadmap for delayed parliamentary and presidential elections.

“I am deeply concerned by the military movement taking place in Libya and the risk of confrontation,” the visiting Guterres tweeted from the capital. “There is no military solution” to Libya’s woes, he added.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2019