Eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar tried to stage a coup issuing an arrest warrant for Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, UN envoy Ghassan Salame said as the Libyan rivals were locked in military confrontation over the capital.
Haftar’s eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli almost two weeks ago, predicting defections and victory within two days.
Serraj’s internationally-recognised government managed to halt them in southern suburbs, thanks largely to armed group from various western Libyan factions groups rushing to assist.
Haftar, a 75-year-old former general in the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s army, has been building up troop numbers and intensifying air strikes in a campaign he sells as necessary to restore order and eradicate jihadists.
Salame, speaking to BBC radio, said Haftar’s decision to issue arrest warrants for Serraj and other top Tripoli officials “sounded more like a coup than counter-terrorism”.
Haftar’s side confirmed the warrant was issued and Serraj’s government said it was immediately rejected.
Diplomats believe Haftar now faces no pressure to back off from supporters including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and France, who see him as the best bet to end the factional chaos plaguing Libya since Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.
Salame, whose plans for a national reconciliation conference were postponed because of fighting, hoped both sides will realise neither can achieve an outright military victory.
“We are in fact in a military stalemate since eight or nine days,” Salame said, adding both sides executed 30 air strikes each that did not change the situation on the ground.
Air strikes and shelling hit civilian infrastructure and residential homes, especially in the south of Tripoli where Haftar’s forces attempted to penetrate government defences.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said targeting civilian facilities was a violation of international humanitarian law.
MOUNTING CIVILIAN CASUALTIES
The United Nations Libya mission UNSMIL warned in a statement “the bombing of schools, hospitals, ambulances and civilian areas is strictly prohibited”, adding it was documenting cases for the UN Security Council.
“We are concerned at mounting civilian casualties, we are concerned at damage to vital civilian infrastructure,” David Satterfield, US Acting Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs, told reporters in a conference call.
A school was hit on Saturday in an air strike blamed on Haftar’s forces, Tripoli officials said.
Two missiles struck education ministry warehouses on Sunday, destroying 3.1 million school books, an official in the Tripoli government told Reuters. OCHA said in a tweet five million books and national exam results were destroyed.
In another incident, Reuters filmed a residential block in southern Tripoli hit by at least one rocket. Several families were inside during the strike but escaped with minor injuries. Children’s shoes, bread and shards of the rocket lay on the floor of the dwelling.
Both sides trade blame over shelling of residential districts.
More than 18,000 people have been displaced by fighting, 2,500 in the past 24 hours, the UN migration agency said. Nearly 150 people, mostly combatants, were killed, the World Health Organisation said. More than 600 people are wounded.
The UN-organised national reconciliation conference, planned before Haftar’s advance, intended to bring both sides together to end the turmoil and plan an election.
No new date has yet been set.
Haftar’s declared mission is to restore order to the oil-producing North African country.