Battles around Tripoli on Wednesday followed intensified bombardment of the capital, ignoring international pleas for a truce to tackle the coronavirus after the first Libyan case was confirmed.
The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) launched an assault on several fronts, including an airbase west of Tripoli, according to both sides.
Later on Wednesday the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said its forces repelled the attack and capturing territory near Zuwara.
“Attacks and counterattacks in Libya continue to inflict suffering and civilian casualties,” the UN mission said in a tweet, calling for an immediate halt to violence.
Residents of Tripoli, seat of the GNA, said the shelling was the worst in weeks, shaking windows in the city centre miles from southern suburbs the front line.
“We are done in this country. There is a war and we hear clashes all day, fearing a missile near us. Now there is coronavirus. If it spreads in Libya, I think we can only pray,” said Issa (30) a shop owner in Tripoli.
The LNA has been trying to capture the capital for a year, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia. The GNA is supported by Turkey and allied Syrian fighters.
LNA shelling attack last week drew UN condemnation after it killed four girls and young women. On Tuesday, shells hit a prison in an area held by the GNA, also drawing UN anger.
Pro-GNA forces attacked al-Watiya airbase, west of Tripoli and the closest to the capital in LNA hands, on Wednesday, leading to more clashes.
“In response to the heaviest bombardments Tripoli has seen, we launched counter attacks against Haftar,” Mohamed Geblawi, spokesman for the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.
Geblawi cited “indiscriminate shelling” by the LNA after both sides agreed to a ceasefire to tackle the coronavirus.
LNA spokesman Ahmed Mismari said it was pro-GNA forces who broke the truce. The LNA repulsed the attack and then captured Zaltan, al-Jameel, al-Assa and Raqdalin near the GNA-held town Zuwara, he said.
A fighter in the pro-GNA forces said the battle would continue. “It was a successful operation and these will continue,” he said.
The escalation in fighting could spell disaster for Libya’s fragmented and stretched health system in handling the coronavirus, after authorities confirmed the first case of the disease on Tuesday.
“Libyans suffered for years under this brutal conflict and now they face another threat to their health and wellbeing,” said Elizabeth Hoff, the World Health Organisation representative in Libya.
“We sit at home hearing the clashes, a daily routine since 2011. Now we are scared of coronavirus. I am scared for my family. Libya doesn’t have a good healthcare system,” said Akram, a 28-year-old barista in Tripoli with three children.