Forces loyal to rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar on Monday, January 6 seized control of the coastal city of Sirte from factions loyal to the Tripoli government, raising tensions as Turkey said it was deploying troops in the North African country.
Sirte, around 350 kmsoutheast of the capital Tripoli, had been held since 2016 by forces allied with the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord.
But on Monday, a spokesperson for Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army said the city had fallen to his fighters within hours.
“Sirte has been totally liberated,” Ahmad al-Mesmari announced on television.
“The operation was quick and lasted only three hours,” Mesmari said, although preparations had started months earlier with airstrikes on pro-GNA forces’ positions.
He said LNA fighters struck from five land and sea positions and had air cover. He did not give further details.
Pro-GNA forces said in a Facebook post they had come under attack in Sirte and that mercenaries from Chad were fighting alongside the LNA.
The GNA did not immediately confirm the fall of Sirte, but a pro-GNA military commander in the city, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the loss.
Oil-rich Libya has been plunged into chaos since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi
It is now divided between the GNA based in the capital Tripoli and Haftar’s forces in the east, which also control most of the country’s south.
Tensions escalated last year when Haftar launched an operation in January to “purge” southern Libya “of terrorist groups and criminals” and seized several towns with support from local tribes.
Haftar then set his eyes on Tripoli, launching an offensive on the capital in April to unseat the GNA.
Turkey deploys troops to Libya
The GNA has sought help from Turkey, whose parliament passed a bill allowing the government to send troops to Libya to shore up the Tripoli government.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Sunday that Turkish soldiers had begun deploying to Libya.
“Our soldiers’ duty there is coordination. They will develop the operation center there. Our soldiers are gradually going right now,” he told CNN Turk.
But Turkey will not be deploying its own combat forces.
“Right now, we will have different units serving as a combatant force,” Erdogan said, without giving details on who the fighters would be and where they would come from.
Senior Turkish military personnel would coordinate the “fighting force,” Erdogan explained, sharing their experience and information to support Tripoli.
Syrian opposition fighters under Turkey’s military command have reportedly been sent to Libya in recent days.
Egypt convenes Libya talks
Although there has been no immediate confirmation from Tripoli of that deployment, Turkey’s involvement has raised concern among Libya’s neighbors and in Europe.
Egypt announced that it will hold a meeting with four European Mediterranean countries about developments in neighbouring Libya.
The talks – to be held in Cairo on Wednesday – will bring together foreign ministers from France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, Egypt’s foreign ministry said.
The ministers will tackle the “rapid developments” in Libya and “ways to push efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement” between rival administrations there, a statement said.
Algeria, which on Monday hosted GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj as well as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, urged the U.N. Security Council to impose a ceasefire in Libya.
While the GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar, Haftar has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
On Friday, Haftar urged all Libyans to take up arms in response to any Turkish involvement in his country.
UN special envoy ‘angry’ at foreign meddling in Libya
The United Nations special envoy to Libya on Monday said he was “angry” at foreign interference in the war-torn country, saying Libyans have “suffered enough.”
“I am really angry to see that everybody wants to talk about Libya and very few people want to talk about the Libyans, what happens to the Libyans,” Ghassan Salame said after a two-hour meeting with the U.N. Security Council.
“Enough is enough, the Libyans have suffered enough,” he added.
Asked about Turkey’s decision to deploy troops in Libya to support the GNA, Salame answered that the “country is suffering too much from foreign interferences in different ways.”
“What I asked these countries is very clear: keep out of Libya. There is enough weapons in Libya, they don’t need extra weapons.”
“There are enough mercenaries in Libya, so stop sending mercenaries, as it is the case right now,” he said, estimating the number of foreign fighters in the country to be in the “hundreds, probably thousands.”
Russia has denied direct involvement with Russian mercenaries reported to be operating in Libya since last summer in support of Haftar’s LNA.
“Get out of the Libya nightmare,” said Salame, reminding members of an arms embargo on the country since 2011.
“That’s what I am asking all the countries to remain outside this situation because there is no military solution.”
Salame also criticized the Security Council’s failure to reach an agreement on a ceasefire resolution, which it has been trying to draw up since April.
“Libya is not only a geopolitical story, it is also a human story. And people are suffering. But there is no international clear message,” the special envoy said.
Asked about the timing of an international conference called by Germany and which is provisionally slated for the end of January, Salame said he hoped the gathering would be held “as soon as possible.”
A diplomatic source said a scheduled meeting in Moscow on Saturday between German leader Angela Merkel and her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin could prove decisive to the conference if Putin agreed to attend. Turkey’s Erdogan has also been invited.
Borrell warns of Tripoli fighting
Meanwhile, the European Union’s top diplomat warned that more intense fighting could be about to break out around Tripoli.
“Recent developments in Libya indicate that an escalation of violence around Tripoli could be imminent,” said Josep Borrell, the E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs.
On Saturday, an air strike hit a military school in al-Hadba al-Khadra, a residential area in south Tripoli, leaving at least 30 people dead and 33 others wounded, according to the GNA’s health ministry.
Surveillance camera footage shared online showed cadets gathered on a parade ground as the strike occurred.
Haftar’s forces denied that they were behind the attack. LNA spokesperson Ahmad al-Mismari said Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood were responsible for what he described as a “terrorist act”.
“We condemn attacks such as Saturday’s strike against the military school, which only bring more violence and human suffering,” Borrell said.
“Today it is more urgent than ever to work genuinely towards a political solution to the crisis in Libya,” he said.
“The European Union calls on all sides to engage in a political process under the leadership of the United Nations. The European Union will continue to deploy all efforts towards finding a peaceful and political solution to this process.”
With reporting from AFP