As Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar's forces draw closer to Tripoli, the UN-backed government controlling the capital city has announced a red alert.
Four days after the UN said there were signs that Libya’s two rival leaders may solve their dispute over control of the army, Eastern Libyan forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar warned they would “liberate the homeland from terrorism”. In response, Libya's internationally-recognised government in Tripoli has declared a military alert.
A brief skirmish between rival sides was reported on Wednesday after Haftar’s troops moved west. The face-off came just weeks ahead of a UN-sponsored conference on April 12 aimed at breaking Libya’s political deadlock.
What does Haftar’s move mean?
With the UN-backed government in Tripoli and a parallel administration based in Tobruk, allied to Haftar, Libya has been in a crisis since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Having returned to Libya upon the toppling of Gaddafi, Haftar became a major player in the country as he captured large swathes in Libya with the ultimate aim of capturingTripoli.
Belal Bellali, a Libyan-British human rights lawyer and activist told TRT World that despite being one of the biggest receivers of foreign military aid, Haftar had virtually no presence on the front lines when he first returned to Libya in 2011.
“Many at the time said that Haftar was ‘preparing for after the revolution’. They recognised back then his desire for power,” he said.
Backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) controls the east and has recently expanded to southern Libya.
Haftar has been rejecting the transnational Government of National Accord (GNA) which was formed as part of a UN-brokered process laid out in the 2015 Libyan Political Process. Before that, the Tobruk-based government was the internationally-recognised ruling power in the country.
A political reconciliation between the rivals would pave the way for the country’s long-delayed elections.
In February, the LNA started an offensive to take the control of a pumping substation for the El Sharara oil field. Controlling the oil fields in El Sharara is widely seen as a bargaining chip ahead of the elections.
Why does Haftar not coming to the terms of reconciliation?
Bellali says that for Haftar to reach an agreement with GNA it would mean a compromise - a return to a civil society and ultimately elections.
However, Haftar himself is not cheered by the people of Tripoli. In April 2014, he attempted to storm Tripoli, and the assembly, to assume power for himself. Upon failing, and being pushed out, he began his so called ‘War on Terror’ in the east. Haftar is still being protested in Tripoli as the LNA approaches the west.
However, Bellali says it is worth noting that in Derna, a port city in the east, despite the presence of Daesh there for about three years, there were no reports of clashes between Daesh and Heftar's forces.
Having previously spent two decades trying to topple Gaddafi, Haftar is seen as the new Gaddafi by his opponents.
“His ambition has been clear since 2011, to assume control of Libya and to occupy the position that Gaddafi once held,” Bellali said.
“Some in the east and many in the west do not want to see the return of a military man, especially one who assisted Gaddafi to come to power in 1969 -- back at the helm and running the country without accountability.”
What would be the cost of an escalation to the country if the UN conference is cancelled?
UN Chief Antonio Guterres had already arrived the capital on Wednesday in preparation for the UN conference, amid increased tension.
On Thursday, highlighting the risk of confrontation after the latest skirmishes in the country, Guterres appealed for restraint.
“There is no military solution. Only intra-Libyan dialogue can solve Libyan problems. I call for calm and restraint as I prepare to meet the Libyan leaders in the country,” Guterres said in a tweet. It is not yet clear if the rivals will be participating in the conference.
Bellali says the cancellation of the conference would mean giving Heftar a green light to continue with his military actions.
Challenging the role of the UN in Libya, the human rights lawyer refers to the texts exchanged between UN Libya Envoy Bernardino Leon and the UAE foreign minister in 2015.
“In a leaked email, Leon told the UAE that it was his plan to ‘completely delegitimise’ Heftar's opponents,” he said.
“As a result, many Libyans are suspicious of any impartiality by those who are appointed by the UN.”