(Bloomberg) -- Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar will press a seven-month offensive to seize Tripoli after his forces ended a battlefield stalemate, his spokesman said, despite U.S. pressure to halt a war that’s drawn in Russian intervention.
General Ahmed al-Mismari said Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army has been gaining ground in heavy fighting on the capital’s outskirts, where they’d been largely bogged down since launching the offensive in April to unseat the rival United Nations-backed government.
A halt to the war “is not even proposed in the general command at all. This is a battle against terrorists who’ve committed crimes against civilians, and the Libyan state,” he said.
Haftar’s forces defeated Islamist militants in the east of the country before capturing the south in early 2019 and then advancing on Tripoli. They also control most of Libya’s oil resources, though security is often tenuous as shown by the LNA’s eviction from the El-Feel field on Wednesday.
The war for the capital has drawn in growing Russian intervention on Haftar’s behalf, prompting growing concern in Washington, which had largely watched from the sidelines as the battle unfolded in the North African state that sits on top of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves. Western officials say at least 1,400 mercenaries with the Russian Wagner group have been deployed to Libya since September to assist Haftar. Russia has denied the presence of its mercenaries in Libya, while the LNA disputes the numbers.
“There is a team or two only for maintenance and to direct Libyan technicians to fix weapons, because we have old Soviet weapons,” Mismari said, adding that the groups were “very small.”
Libya has been wracked by violence ever since the NATO-backed ouster of Moammar Qaddafi in 2011, with the instability allowing Libya to become a bastion for Islamist radicals and a magnet for migrants hoping to reach Europe. Haftar launched his campaign on Tripoli just as the UN was laying the groundwork for a conference meant to reunited the divided country, which has dueling governments in Tripoli and another in Tobruk allied with Haftar.
The LNA accuses the Tripoli administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of squandering public finances and harboring extremists, claims it rejects pointing to anti-terrorism collaboration with Western nations.
Regional powers including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, both U.S. allies, were already supporting the LNA, while Turkey has backed the Tripoli-based government.
Now Russia’s expanding involvement means it could dictate how the war -- and any eventual peace deal -- will be conducted. Moscow’s clout has, though, alarmed the U.S. and some of Haftar’s foreign backers, who fear losing their influence, according to officials familiar with the matter who asked not to be named.
The U.S. State Department has called on Haftar to stop the fighting as Germany leads an initiative to host an international conference in Berlin to end foreign intervention in the conflict. There has also been pressure on both sides to accept a meeting. Mismari said the LNA has neither rejected nor agreed yet to talks.
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