The battle for the central coastal city could determine control over a major source of Libya's income – oil fields that tribes allied with warlord Khalifa Haftar shut down earlier this year.
Libyan army and fighters allied with the country's UN-recognised government in Tripoli pressed their advance on Monday, boosted by recent battlefield gains and their rivals' withdrawal from around the capital, the warring sides reported.
The UN-backed Government of National Accord's (GNA) forced pushed further into the central coastal city of Sirte. even as UAE drones, backing warlord Khalifa Haftar, struck a field hospital south of Misrata in northwestern Libya.
The fighting continues after Tripoli rejected a unilateral ceasefire proposal over the weekend by Egypt, also a backer of Haftar whose militias have waged a year-long campaign to capture the capital, with more than 1,000 killed in the violence.
The Tripoli forces, supported by Turkey, gained the upper hand last week after retaking the capital's airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city and a string of key towns near Tripoli, forcing Haftar's militia to withdraw — defeats their command painted as a tactical measure to give the UN-backed peace process a chance.
Political talks on hold
Tripoli-based Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha said the government would engage in political talks only after taking Sirte and also the inland Jufra airbase, to the south.
The US last month accused Russia of deploying at least 14 aircraft at Jufra base to support mercenaries backing Haftar, a claim dismissed by Moscow.
Egypt's proposal, announced by President Abdel Fattah el Sisi on Saturday, envisaged a ceasefire starting on Monday. Haftar and Russia accepted it.
The EU, however, has said it cannot accept any alternative to the Berlin process.
“In general, any initiative in line with the UN-led Berlin process is a positive development. But no alternative to the inclusive political solution of the Berlin process, also confirmed by the UN, is acceptable,” Peter Stano said.
Significance of Sirte
Taking Sirte would open the gate for the Libyan army to press even farther eastward, to potentially seize control of vital oil installations, terminals and oil fields that tribes allied with Haftar shut down earlier this year, cutting off Libya's major source of income.
Libya's Prime Minister Fayez al Sarraj urged the Tripoli fighters to "continue their path" toward Sirte, according to a statement posted by Mohamed Gnono, a spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces.
Gnono posted footage of allegedly captured tanks and vehicles in the outskirts of Sirte.
Sirte was the hometown of Libya's former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, killed in the 2011 uprising.
The city was later controlled by terrorists who pledged allegiance to Daesh, until they were defeated in 2016.
UAE drones hit hospital
UAE's drones supporting Haftar struck a field hospital south of Misrata in northwestern Libya, the Libyan military said.
The attack caused material damage to the field and ambulances in Abugrein, 115 km south of Misrata, a statement from the government-led Operation Volcano of Rage said on Facebook.
Libya’s east-based militia is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as well as France and Russia.
The Libyan government receives aid from Qatar, Italy and Turkey, which stepped up its military support in recent months, helping shift the tide of the conflict.
Libya’s national oil company said on Sunday it has resumed production at the country’s largest oil field, after negotiations with the tribes.
Allowing the Tripoli-based company to resume oil production could be seen as an olive branch to Libya's UN-backed government, which suffered heavy financial losses, estimated at about $5.2 billion, since the closure.