TRIPOLI, Libya (UPDATED) – Forces loyal to Libya's unity government announced on Saturday, April 20, a counter-attack against military strongman Khalifa Haftar's fighters, as clashes south of the capital Tripoli intensified.
"We have launched a new phase of attack. Orders were given early this morning to advance and gain ground," said Mustafa al-Mejii, a spokesman for the Government of National Accord's forces.
Haftar launched an offensive on April 4 against the UN-recognized GNA, which is based in Tripoli, resulting in repeated fierce clashes on the southern edges of the capital.
Sustained rocket and shellfire could be heard in several districts of Tripoli on Saturday, after several days of less intense fighting and stalemate on the ground.
Haftar backs a rival administration to the GNA based in eastern Libya that refuses to recognize the authority of the Tripoli government. (READ: Libya unity government issues arrest warrant for Haftar)
An Agence France-Presse (AFP) team on the ground confirmed pro-GNA forces had advanced in Ain Zara, in Tripoli's southern suburbs, where the frontline was shifted a few kilometres south.
The Tripoli Protection Force – a coalition of pro-GNA militias, including fighters from the city of Misrata – also advanced to Wadi Rabie, another southern suburb, an officer on the ground told AFP.
The advance followed "heavy artillery (attack) and medium-calibre fire early in the morning," he said, but did not want to be named.
This commander said 8 of his fighters had been wounded.
Seven air strikes were carried out against military positions held by Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), according to the GNA's military spokesman Colonel Mohamad Gnounou.
Gnounou said strikes took place south of Gharian, 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of the capital, and against an airbase at Al-Wotya, 50 kilometers further southwest.
The LNA, for its part, said its fighters were "taking control of several new positions on the frontlines in Tripoli."
"Our forces are progressing as the GNA militias retreat on all fronts," the LNA said on its Facebook page.
International divide deepens
Haftar's offensive has sharpened fault lines in policy towards Libya among world powers.
On Thursday, Russia and the United States opposed a British bid backed by France and Germany at the UN Security Council to demand a ceasefire in the North African country.
The White House revealed Friday that President Donald Trump reached out personally to Haftar.
Trump and Haftar spoke on Monday "to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya," according to the White House.
Observers see Trump's contact with the strongman, at the expense of internationally-recognized leader Fayez al-Sarraj, as evidence of US support that explains Haftar's determination to pursue his offensive against Tripoli.
Hundreds of "yellow vest" protesters on Friday demonstrated in Tripoli against Haftar, and accused France of backing his forces.
Wearing the trademark yellow vests of French anti-government demonstrators, they were among thousands of Libyans who flooded a central Tripoli square to rally in support of the GNA.
The French embassy in Libya on Friday tweeted – in Arabic – that Paris was "opposed to the attack" on Tripoli and urged all parties to abide by a ceasefire and engage in peace negotiations.
At least 220 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded since the violence erupted, according to the World Health Organization, while the International Organization for Migration says over 25,000 people have been displaced. (READ: PH diplomat asks families to convince OFWs in Libya to come home)
Libya has been mired in chaos since the NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
Alongside the rivalry between the GNA and the LNA, myriad militias have vied for control of key cities, while jihadist activity has also periodically flared. – Rappler.com