TRIPOLI: The conflict rocking Libya escalated on Sunday as forces of strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an air strike on a suburb of Tripoli and the UN-backed government vowed a major counteroffensive.

The United Nations called for an urgent two-hour truce to allow evacuations of civilians and the wounded, while the unity government said the fighting had so far killed 21 people.

Rivalries between the two camps threaten to plunge the country into a full-blown civil war after Haftar on Thursday launched an offensive on Tripoli.

Oil-rich Libya has been hit badly by chaos since the Nato-backed uprising in 2011 that killed dictator Muammar Qadhafi, as rival administrations and armed groups have battled for power. Repeated attempts to find a peaceful solution have failed.

After a pause overnight, fierce fighting flared anew on Sunday morning south of the capital between Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and forces backing the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The Tripoli-based government says 21 people have been killed in the conflict so far

As clashes raged in the mainly farmland region of Wadi Raba and the destroyed international airport south of the capital, a spokesman for pro-GNA forces announced a counteroffensive against Haftar’s forces.

Colonel Mohamed Gnounou told repor­ters that operation “Volcano of Ang­er” was aimed at “purging all Liby­an cities of aggressor and illegitimate forces”, in reference to Haftar’s fighters.

The LNA said it had carried out its first air raid on a Tripoli suburb, defying calls by the international community to halt hostilities.

The unity government’s health ministry said on Sunday at least 21 people had been killed and 27 wounded since the fighting began, without specifying whether civilians were among the dead.

Haftar’s force said on Saturday that 14 of its personnel had been killed, while the Libyan Red Crescent reported the death of one of its doctors.

GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj warned on Saturday of a “war without a winner” and said reinforcements were pouring into Tripoli to battle Haftar’s forces.

Powerful armed groups from the western city of Misrata and fighters from Zintan and Zawiya — battle-hardened militiamen who took part in the 2011 uprising against Qadhafi — have joined the battle.

At least one armed group from Misrata, Brigade 166, arrived on Saturday in eastern Tripoli to join the counteroffensive with dozens of vehicles, some mounted with anti-aircraft guns, a photographer said.

“We are waiting for orders to repel any advance by the enemy towards Tripoli,” said the group’s spokesman Khaled Abu Jazia.

Misrata fighters ousted the militant Islamic State group from Libya’s coastal city of Sirte, Qadhafi’s hometown, in 2016 after months of fighting.

Sunday’s LNA air raid came a day after pro-GNA forces launched their own air strikes for the first time since the offensive began, targeting at least one LNA position south of Tripoli.

LNA spokesman Ahmed Mesmari had vowed the force would retaliate.

On Saturday he said pro-Haftar fighters were “progressing on several fronts... as planned” and that Tripoli would soon be captured.

The US military said on Sunday it had temporarily pulled an unspecified number of its troops out of Libya “in response to security conditions on the ground”.

Analysts say Haftar has been buoyed by a series of successful operations that have brought all of the east and much of southern Libya under his control.

A field marshal who served under Qadhafi and now backs an administration in eastern Libya opposed to the GNA, Haftar was counting on a swift battle to capture Tripoli.

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2019