Forces backing Libya’s internationally recognised government fought house-to-house battles with troops loyal to Commander Khalifa Haftar in southern parts of Tripoli and appear to be gaining ground.
Government soldiers, some in jeans and t-shirts, took cover in abandoned buildings as they fired on Haftar positions. Some carried anti-aircraft guns removed from their vehicles to get through narrow streets.
Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), allied to a rival administration in eastern Libya, mounted an offensive on Tripoli three weeks ago but failed to breach defences in the city’s south despite heavy fighting.
The battle for the capital has all but wrecked UN-backed efforts for a peace deal between rival factions and threatened to further disrupt Libya’s oil industry.
Two eastern operations of state oil firm NOC – which in the past made broad statements backing Haftar – for the first time specifically said they supported his offensive. The NOC as a whole has tried to stay out of the conflict.
A Reuters team visiting Ain Zara estimated Tripoli forces had gained up to 1,500 metres compared to an earlier visit.
Other parts of the frontline appeared unchanged and the situation remains fluid. Both sides gained and lost territory within days or even hours during fighting.
“We are progressing. We are now expelling the enemy from the capital,” Salah Badi, a commander from Misrata fighting the LNA, told Reuters.
The role of commanders including Badi complicate the situation, diplomats say. The UN Security Council and the US Treasury last year issued asset freezes and travel bans against Badi for involvement in a September 2017 attack on forces allied to Tripoli’s government that triggered weeks of fighting.
The former enemies are now united to fight the LNA with forces loyal to Haftar saying the Tripoli administration is controlled by “terrorist militias” they are fighting to expel.
Tripoli supporters accuse Haftar, a former general under Muammar Gaddafi, of making a power grab with foreign backing.
Two NOC unit in areas under Haftar’s control issued statements supporting the offensive, a day after NOC Tripoli headquarters condemned military use of its facilities.
Benghazi-based AGOCO congratulated Haftar’s forces “on the success and progress in its striving against extremist terrorist militias and militias which steal public funds”.
A separate NOC unit in the east, Sirte Oil Co, issued a statement backing the Tripoli advance.