CAIRO — Forces allied with Libya’s United Nations-supported government said Monday that they had wrested control of a key military base on the outskirts of Tripoli, the country’s capital, from their rivals, an array of eastern-based militias that had been trying for over a year to capture the city.
Col. Mohamed Gnounou, a spokesman for the Tripoli-allied forces, said they had retaken al-Watiya air base in the city’s southwestern desert reaches and had captured a Pantsir surface-to-air missile system located at the base. It had been a weekslong effort.
Fayez Sarraj, the prime minister of the Government of National Accord, based in Tripoli, vowed to “liberate all cities and regions” in Libya.
“Today’s victory is not the end of the battle,” he said in a statement.
The development is a heavy setback for the eastern-based militias, the so-called Libyan Arab Armed Forces led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, after a series of recent losses. In April, the Tripoli-allied forces seized control of the city of Sabrata and the town of Sorman, west of the Libyan capital.
General Hifter downplayed the loss of the base, calling it a “tactical withdrawal” and said that most of the troops and weapons were safe.
The escalation in the fighting comes despite increased international pressure on both sides to return to negotiating a political settlement, particularly over concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Libya has reported at least 65 cases of the virus, including three deaths.
While General Hifter’s push on Tripoli had mostly stalemated, the turmoil in the oil-rich country steadily worsened as foreign backers increasingly intervene — despite pledges to the contrary at a high-profile peace summit in Berlin earlier this year.
Turkey sent armored drones, air defenses and more recently, Syrian militants with links to extremist groups, to prop up the embattled Tripoli government. Russia, on the other hand, deployed hundreds of mercenaries to boost General Hifter’s assault. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt also back General Hifter.
The U.S. Embassy in Libya on Monday called on all parties and the international community to support the U.N.-led process, quoting Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of NATO, who said in a statement that “there is no military solution to the crisis in Libya.”
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