Eastern Libyan forces sought to reach the centre of Tripoli after easy advance through desert hit a tricky urban phase, with deaths and displacements mounting and the West aghast at the threat to its peace plan.
Renewed civil war in Libya, splintered into areas of factional control since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, threatens to disrupt oil and gas supplies, trigger more migration to Europe and allow Islamist militants to exploit chaos.
The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar, a former officer in Gaddafi’s army, said 19 soldiers died as they closed in on the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.
The United Nations said 2,800 people were displaced by clashes and many more could flee, though some were trapped.
The LNA executed airstrikes on the south of the city as it seeks to advance into the centre from a disused airport.
The Tripoli government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, which reported 11 deaths without specifying sides, has armed groups arriving from Misrata to block the LNA.
Al-Serraj (59) from a wealthy business family has run the Tripoli government since 2016 as part of a UN-brokered deal boycotted by Haftar.
The LNA, allied with a parallel eastern administration in Benghazi, took the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before a surprisingly fast push toward the capital.
That advance was straightforward through mostly sparsely populated areas taking Tripoli is a bigger challenge.
US AND UN APPEAL FOR TRUCE
The violence has thrown into doubt a UN plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections as a way out of the anarchy since the Western-backed toppling of Gaddafi eight years ago.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the latest international appeal for talks to end the fighting.
“We have made clear we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to military operations against the Libyan capital,” he said.
A contingent of US forces evacuated at the weekend.
The UN mission to Libya called for a two hour truce in southern Tripoli to evacuate civilians and wounded, but it did not appear to have been heeded.
Haftar casts himself as a foe of extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mould of Gaddafi, whose four-decade rule saw torture, disappearances and assassinations.
Haftar enjoys the backing of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to UN reports.
Forces with the Tripoli government announced an operation to defend the capital called “Volcano of Anger”.
Allied groups from Misrata are moving pickup trucks fitted with machine guns into Tripoli.