Forces from eastern Libya swept through the south and took control of oilfields in recent weeks have reinforced a base in the centre of the country and signalled to Tripoli it may be next.
The United Nations, stunned by the southern advance, is scrambling to mediate between eastern commander Khalifa Haftar and Tripoli’s internationally-recognised government led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, Western diplomats say.
They fear it may be the last UN attempt to unify the rival administrations and end the chaos following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 with free elections.
Haftar, a 75-year-old former general, is increasingly taking the situation into his own hands, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and the man to restore order.
He has not said whether he wants to march on Tripoli, which would dramatically escalate tensions. His Libyan National Army (LNA) hinted heavily it might do so — if Haftar is not recognised as the country’s overall military commander, his aim since he began assembling the force in 2014.
“Some military sources say the LNA will move toward Tripoli after the announcement that the south has been secured,” read an item on an LNA website.
“The same sources said there is co-ordination with some units in Tripoli and its suburbs for the army to enter Tripoli.”
The LNA spokesman said a purported order from Haftar for troops to move, seen by Reuters and publicised by his supporters, was not genuine.
Tripoli has been rife with rumours of invasion and residents report seeing young people driving around playing loud songs praising Haftar from car radios.
Several LNA units returned to Benghazi, Haftar’s power base, some units went to Jufra, a city in the desert straddling east and west, LNA sources say.
From there they could go home or — the implied threat according to diplomats — move north-west to Tripoli, should talks over powersharing and elections fail.
Haftar taps into fatigue among Libyans yearning for electricity, fuel and banknotes scarce in a country which once enjoyed some of highest living standards in the region.
For many, especially in the east, the general is the only person who can end fighting by myriad groups with ever-changing names. For his enemies in western cities and Islamists oppressed under the old regime, he is a new Gaddafi.
Haftar took the southern El Sharara and El Feel oilfields last month, completing a campaign which gave him effective control of the country’s crude output of around a million barrels a day.
He does not, as yet, have the means to profit because oil exports are managed by the state oil firm NOC in Tripoli, working with Serraj.
The situation on the ground is changing fast.
UN envoy Ghassan Salame visited main southern city Sabha a day before some 80 LNA vehicles drove in through the desert and Haftar’s growing clout was on show again last week.
The NOC agreed to reopen El Sharara, closed since rogue guards and tribesmen seized it in December, after the UAE called two meetings. The first was with Serraj and NOC chairman Mustafa Sanalla to agree on a security plan and the second was between the Tripoli premier and Haftar.
While some communities in western Libya support the LNA, it is far from clear whether Haftar would be able to muster sufficient.
The LNA says it has 85,000 men including soldiers paid by the central government who it hopes to inherit. Its elite force, Saiqa (Lightning) numbers some 3,500, while Haftar’s sons have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.
Diplomats say much of the LNA is an umbrella of less trained ex-Gaddafi soldiers, tribesmen and Salafists as well as Sudanese and Chadian fighters. The LNA denies this.
Thanks to covert UAE and Egyptian support documented by the UN, Haftar has gradually built up superiority since 2014, allowing him to stop Tripoli flying in reinforcements during his southern campaign and pressure the NOC closing airstrips on oilfields.
Serraj has no real troops — depending on armed groups who control many buildings his ministers work in and who, Tripoli residents say, regularly demand business contracts.
His only asset is his official title and access to state funds, though Western powers have increasingly embraced Haftar – with Italy, for example, addressing him as Field Marshal, his official title.
There is some Western support for Haftar. French Special Forces in conjunction with Britain and the United States advised the LNA during the Benghazi campaign.
Last week Serraj unexpectedly praised co-operation with Haftar, saying they needed to work together, in a speech to western mayors after rumours of approaching LNA troops surfaced.
Haftar and Serraj could agree to a new transitional government, which would help the commander entrench power without invading Tripoli.
It is unclear whether Haftar’s supporters would agree to putting him under civilian control as proposed by Western and UN mediators.
“There is no reconciliation with Serraj for power because talks are not with him but with people behind him who do not want Haftar,” said Hamad Bandaq, a lawmaker in the eastern parliament.
The biggest obstacle for Haftar is Misrata, a western city home to forces which could partly match LNA ground troops, analysts say.
The city is known for resisting old regime figures, developed during 2011 when Gaddafi forces besieged it for three months.
Weeks after Haftar started his Benghazi campaign in 2014 Misrata forces moved on Tripoli, expelling a government allied to a Haftar partner in one-month battle that split Libya. The main motive was fear of a Haftar coup.
There have been belligerent comments from Misrata residents in recent days but it is unclear whether they would fight.
“A mix of conflict fatigue, cautiousness and internal divide has so far forestalled a military mobilisation,” said Emad Badi, a Libya researcher. “That could change quickly.”
Haftar and the UAE have put out feelers to Tripoli forces and diplomats hope Haftar will agree to negotiate as he needs access to NOC cash after stretching his resources with his sweep of the south.
The LNA used massive force in the three-year battle over Benghazi but applied a different tactic in the south.
It launched air strikes and battled over one town. It relied on a small ground force, with less than 200 vehicles, which offered jobs, petrol and banknotes to towns mostly happy to see someone replacing the largely absent state.
At El Sharara, a few dozen LNA cars arrived, negotiated with guards and quickly struck a deal, celebrated by a commander flown to shoot a video with his new men.