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US urges Russia-backed Libyan commander to halt offensive on Tripoli

Panorama of Tripoli taken from the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel. (Bryn Jones/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States says it is “deeply concerned” about a battle near Libya’s capital, Tripoli. and is seeking an “immediate halt” to an offensive against the city by commander Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

“We have made clear that we oppose the military offensive by Khalifa Haftar’s forces and urge the immediate halt to these military operations against the Libyan capital,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement from Washington late on April 7.

“This unilateral military campaign against Tripoli is endangering civilians and undermining prospects for a better future for all Libyans,” Pompeo’s statement said.

“There is no military solution to the Libya conflict,” Pompeo said. “This is why the United States continues to press Libyan leaders, together with our international partners, to return to political negotiations mediated by UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General Ghassan Salame.”

“A political solution is the only way to unify the country and provide a plan for security, stability, and prosperity for all Libyans,” he said.

According to the Health Ministry of Libya’s UN-backed government of National Accord, 11 people were killed and 23 wounded by fighting on April 7 in the southern part of Tripoli between government forces and Haftar’s Russia-backed forces. The ministry did not give details about whether the casualties were civilians or fighters.

Before those casualties were announced, the Tripoli-based government said at least 23 people had been killed and 27 wounded on both sides, including civilians, since fighting broke out around the capital on April 4.

Casualties from fighting on April 7 were announced after Haftar’s forces said they carried out an air strike near Tripoli Airport on the southern outskirts of the capital, escalating the battle despite calls for a truce from the United Nations.

Meanwhile, forces of the internationally backed Prime Minister Fayez Serraj said on April 7 that they launched a counterattack against Haftar’s fighters, codenamed “Operation Volcano of Anger,” in a bid to “cleanse all Libyan cities from aggressors and illegitimate forces.”

Haftar’s forces are allied with a self-declared administration in Libya’s eastern city of Tobruk that is a rival to Serraj’s unity government.

Russia has been a key supporter of Haftar, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

France’s AFP news agency reports that Russia on April 7 blocked a formal UN Security Council statement in line with Pompeo’s call for Haftar’s forces to halt their advance on Tripoli.

That draft statement also “called for those who undermine Libya’s peace and security to be held to account,” AFP reported.

Security Council diplomats told AFP that Moscow insisted that the formal statement urge all Libyan forces to stop fighting, but the United States opposed that proposed change.

The battle for Tripoli marks a sharp escalation of a power struggle that has gone on since longtime Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011.

In another sign of the deteriorating situation, the United States said on April 7 it has temporarily withdrawn some of its forces from the country due to “security conditions on the ground.”

A small contingent of American troops has been in Libya in recent years to help local forces combat Islamic State (IS) extremists and Al-Qaeda militants, as well as to protect diplomatic facilities.

“The security realities on the ground in Libya are growing increasingly complex and unpredictable,” said U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command.

“Even with an adjustment of the force, we will continue to remain agile in support of existing U.S. strategy, “ Waldhauser said.

He did not provide details on the number of U.S. troops that have been withdrawn or on how many remain within the country.