Explosions shook Libyan capital Tripoli on Saturday after an airstrike, residents said, in an escalation of a two-week offensive by eastern forces on the city held by the internationally recognised government.
A Reuters reporter and several residents saw an aircraft circling for more than 10 minutes over the capital before opening fire on a southern suburb, scene of heavy fighting between the rival forces.
Reuters was unable to confirm whether the strike was by an aircraft or unmanned drone which triggered heavy anti-aircraft fire. Residents previously reported drone strikes but there has been no confirmation and explosions in the city centre this time were louder.
Residents counted several missile strikes which apparently hit a military camp of forces loyal to Tripoli in the Sabaa district. Authorities closed Tripoli’s only functioning airport but reopened it hours later, the airport’s website said.
The Libyan National Army (LNA) force loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar started an offensive two weeks ago but has been unable to breach government’s southern defences.
If a drone strike was confirmed this would point to more sophisticated warfare. The LNA has so far used ageing Soviet-made jets from the air force of Muammar Gaddafi, toppled in 2011, lacking precision firepower and helicopters, according to residents and military sources.
In the past the United Arab Emirates and Egypt supported Haftar with air strikes during campaigns to take eastern Libya. Both countries flew air strikes on Tripoli in 2014 during a different conflict to help a Haftar-allied force, US officials said at the time.
Since 2014 the UAE and Egypt provided the LNA with military equipment such as aircraft and helicopters, helping Haftar gain the upper hand in Libya’s eight-year conflict, past UN reports established.
The UAE built an air base in Al Khadim in eastern Libya, a 2017 report said.
The air strikes, filmed by residents and posted online, came after heavy clashes in southern districts, with shelling jeard in the city centre.
The violence spiked after President Donald Trump spoke with Haftar.
The disclosure of the call and a US statement that it “recognised Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources” boosted the commander’s supporters and enraged opponents.
Western powers and the Gulf are divided over a push by Haftar forces to seize Tripoli, undermining calls by the United Nations for a ceasefire.
Both sides claimed progress in southern Tripoli, but no details were immediately available.
A Reuters TV cameraman visiting Khalat Furgan suburb heard heavy shelling but saw no apparent change in the frontline. Shelling continued in the southern outskirts on Sunday.
On Friday, two children were killed in shelling in southern Tripoli, residents said. The fighting has killed 220 people and wounded 1,066, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
On Thursday, both the United States and Russia said they could not support a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire at this time.
Russia objects to the British-drafted resolution blaming Haftar for the latest violence when his LNA advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli earlier this month, diplomats said.
The United States did not give a reason for its decision not to support the draft resolution, which also calls on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance and for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya.