US pulls troops out of Libyan capital as rival militias battle
Move comes as a Libyan commander’s forces marches on Tripoli
Libyan National Army (LNA) members, commanded by Khalifa Haftar, head out of Benghazi to reinforce the troops advancing to Tripoli, Libya. Photograph: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters
The United States evacuated its small contingent of troops from the Libyan capital Sunday as rival militias raced to stop the forces of an aspiring strongman, Khalifa Hifter, from taking control of the city.
The reason for withdrawal is due to “security conditions on the ground”, a top military official has said.
The move comes as a Libyan commander’s forces advanced toward the capital of Tripoli and clashed with rival militias.
A small contingent of American troops has been in Libya in recent years, helping local forces combat Islamic State and al-Qaeda militants, as well as protecting diplomatic facilities.
“Even with an adjustment of the force, we will continue to remain agile in support of existing US strategy.”
He did not provide details on the number of US troops that have been withdrawn or how many remain in the country.
Footage circulating online showed two apparent US Navy transport craft manoeuvring off a beach in Janzur, east of Tripoli, sending up plumes of spray as American forces were ferried from the shore.
India also evacuated a small contingent of peacekeepers.
The Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, said the country’s 15 central reserve police force peacekeepers were evacuated on Saturday from Tripoli because the “situation in Libya has suddenly worsened” and fighting has moved into the capital city.
The self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, launched a surprise offensive against the capital last week, a move that could potentially drag the country back into civil war.
Libya has been gripped by unrest since the 2011 uprising that overthrew and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
In recent years, the country has been governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli, in the west, each backed by various armed groups.
Fayez Sarraj, head of government in Tripoli, accused Mr Hifter of “betraying” him.
“We have extended our hands towards peace, but after the aggression that has taken place on the part of forces belonging to Hifter and his declaration of war against our cities and our capital ... he will find nothing but strength and firmness,” Mr Sarraj said Saturday in televised comments.
Mr Sarraj and Mr Hifter held talks in Abu Dhabi in late February, their first confirmed meeting since November 2018, when they agreed that national elections were necessary, according to the UN.
Mr Hifter is seeking to capture the capital and seize military control of the whole country before UN-sponsored talks due to start next week that were designed to set a time frame for possible elections in the oil-rich country.
The UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, said the UN is determined to hold the planned conference.
Fighting was under way Sunday at the international airport, some 15 miles from central Tripoli, after Mr Hifter claimed to have seized the area.
The airport was destroyed in a previous bout of militia fighting in 2014.
Mr Hifter said his forces had launched airstrikes targeting rival militias on the outskirts of Tripoli.
The rival militias, which are affiliated with a UN-backed government in Tripoli, said they had also carried out airstrikes, slowing Mr Hifter’s advance.
Armed groups behind the UN-backed government of national accord, or GNA, have announced an effort to defend Tripoli, vowing to recapture all areas seized by Mr Hifter’s forces.
Colonel Mohamed Gnounou, a spokesman for GNA forces, said in televised comments Sunday that the counteroffensive, dubbed Volcano Of Anger, was aimed at “purging all Libyan cities of aggressor and illegitimate forces”.
The two sides reported that at least 35 people, including civilians, had been killed since Thursday.
The health ministry of the Tripoli-based government said in a statement that at least 21 people, including a physician, were killed and at least 27 wounded.
Ahmed al-Mesmari, a spokesman for Mr Hifter’s forces, said on Saturday that 14 troops had been killed since the offensive began.
The fighting has displaced hundreds of people, the UN migration agency said.
The UN mission to Libya called for a two-hour ceasefire on Sunday in parts of Tripoli to evacuate civilians and the wounded.
It answers to the authorities based in eastern Libya, who are at odds with the UN-backed government.– AP/New York Times