US forces evacuated from Libya as Haftar seeks to assume military control
Fighting rages between UN-backed Tripoli government and self-styled Libyan National Army
Libyan National Army members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli. Photograph: Esam Omran Al-Fetori
US forces were dramatically evacuated from the Libyan capital yesterday as fighting raged in the city between militia allied to the UN-backed government of Tripoli and the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the leading military figure from the east.
Haftar is seeking to capture the capital and seize military control of the whole country before UN-sponsored talks due to start this week that were designed to map out a path to fresh elections.
Footage on social media showed two fast US navy transport craft manoeuvring off a beach in Janzour in Tripoli’s western suburbs, sending up plumes of spray as American forces were ferried from the shore.
The evacuation came after three days of fighting on the southern outskirts of the city as Haftar’s forces continued their assault and expelled militias aligned with the UN-backed government of national accord (GNA).
In an escalation at the weekend, both sides launched airstrikes, with Tripoli residents reporting indiscriminate artillery fire hitting homes across the capital. The clashes on Saturday alone resulted in seven deaths and 55 being wounded, according to a spokesperson for the field hospital in Tripoli.
Calls for sanctions to be taken against Haftar were heard for the first time, including from the former UK ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs chief, will try to harness a united front at a meeting of the EU general affairs council today.
Tensions between Rome and Paris over the extent of Emmanuel Macron’s past support for Haftar have been simmering for months.
The GNA prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj, who accused Haftar of treachery has also protested to the French ambassador to Libya, Beatrice du Hellen, about the French support for Haftar. On Saturday Macron spoke to Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, and the Elysee insisted he was calling for restraint from all sides.
The evacuation is the first public acknowledgement that the US has forces in Libya, with the US Africa Command saying in a statement: “Due to increased unrest in Libya a contingent of US forces supporting US Africa Command temporarily relocated from the country in response to security conditions on the ground.”
The US gave no details of the size of the force, or its mission, but said it might be sent back later.
“We will continue to monitor conditions on the ground and assess the feasibility for renewed US military presence, as appropriate,” it said.
In the past, US special forces have been deployed, along with British and French elite units, to fight Islamic State in Libya in the last three years. The US has launched more than a dozen sets of airstrikes against Isis in the southern desert.
Air-tracking websites show continuing US drone activity over Tripoli and special forces transport planes regularly shuttle between the western city of Misrata and bases in Italy.
In a fast moving military situation, Haftar’s forces claim to have captured Tripoli’s international airport in the southern part of the city, where the fighting was focused at the weekend. Schools were closed for a week and queues formed at petrol stations.
The Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, also said he was concerned for the welfare of Italian employees of major oil firms such as ENI.
An air assault was also mounted on military vehicles belonging to the GNA presidential council’s Naqlia camp. It is thought Haftar has superior air forces supplied by the United Arab Emirates.
There is also mounting concern in Washington about Russia’s role in Libya, with diplomatic sources recently accusing Moscow of deploying up to 300 mercenaries in eastern Libya to support Haftar.
Sarraj faces a choice of either seeking to defend the capital, and waiting for international diplomatic pressure to force Haftar to retreat; or instead launching offensives of his own, thereby escalating the war and possibly losing international backing. Haftar’s hopes that various groups inside Tripoli would defect to him have so far proved false.
UN mediators continue urging a ceasefire but some think Haftar is unwilling to compromise.
“He has never been interested in the policy process. Even when I used to go and see him, he would say: ‘Security comes first, politics will follow,’” said Millett. “His aim is to take Tripoli. I think they [the UN]should impose sanctions. What other tools do the international community have?”