Forces of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar bring down the plane south of Libyan capital, witnesses and Libyan National Army say, as head of internationally recognised government, Fayez al Sarraj, kicks off EU tour to drum up support.

Smoke rises during a fight between members of the Libyan internationally recognised government forces and Eastern forces in Ain Zara, Tripoli, Libya May 5, 2019.
Smoke rises during a fight between members of the Libyan internationally recognised government forces and Eastern forces in Ain Zara, Tripoli, Libya May 5, 2019. (Reuters)

Forces loyal to eastern commander Khalifa Haftar shot down a Tripoli government warplane south of the Libyan capital on Tuesday, witnesses and the Libyan National Army (LNA) said.

The LNA media unit released pictures of what it said was the pilot with blood on his face receiving medical treatment while seated on a chair. Another picture showed an LNA commander, Abdulsalam al Hassi, standing behind him.

A spokesman for forces aligned with the internationally recognised government which is based in Tripoli had no immediate comment on the incident.

The eastern-based LNA, led by Haftar, began an offensive against Tripoli in early April but its advance has been blocked by forces loyal to Tripoli on the city's southern outskirts.

Residents of Gharyan, about 80 km south of Tripoli, said that when the plane was heard overhead, anti-aircraft fire opened up. There was an explosion as it was hit.

"The jet was shot down in Al Hira town (10 km from Gharyan) and I saw LNA troops capturing the pilot," a Gharyan resident told Reuters news agency.

The escalation is a setback for efforts by the United Nations and Western states to end the chaos and political division in Libya eight years after a NATO-backed uprising that toppled former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Italy warns against military action

Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warned against possible military action in Libya, as the head of Tripoli's internationally recognised government, Fayez al Sarraj, kicked off a European tour to drum up support against a possible attack by strongman Haftar.

The contents of a meeting between Conte and Sarraj –– which Italian media said lasted about 90 minutes –– were not made public.

But Conte said on the sidelines of a separate event that "there is no military solution that could guarantee the stabilisation of the country".

"The military solution would, in any case, come at the cost of human lives and humanitarian crises," Conte said.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) and Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya, Fayez al Sarraj reviews troops of the Carabinieri police upon Farraj's arrival for their meeting on May 7, 2019 in Rome.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) and Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya, Fayez al Sarraj reviews troops of the Carabinieri police upon Farraj's arrival for their meeting on May 7, 2019 in Rome. (AFP)

Sarraj drumming up support

Sarraj, who heads the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), is seeking support against an attack on Tripoli by Haftar, who has urged his troops to "wipe out" government forces.

Sarraj was set to travel to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel later on Tuesday and then to Paris to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday.

The visit to France, in particular, comes after the GNA repeatedly accused Paris of politically backing the assault which Haftar's forces launched on Tripoli on April 4.

Italy, Libya's former colonial power, is a key backer of the GNA and has echoed calls by Merkel for a "unified" European position and a political solution to resolve the crisis.

Conte says confident to meet Haftar

In a slip of the tongue, Conte said he had spoken "with president Haftar," but immediately corrected himself to say: "I've spoken with president Sarraj. I am confident I will be able to meet General Haftar soon. We are seeking to establish how and when."

Sarraj may also possibly travel to London as part of his tour.

Britain has pushed for a resolution at the UN Security Council demanding a ceasefire in Libya but its efforts have foundered amid divisions at the world body.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies