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Sat, 06 Apr 2019 10:45 - Updated Sat, 06 Apr 2019 10:45

East Libyan troops close on Tripoli, clashes near former airport

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI - Eastern Libyan troops commanded by Khalifa Haftar said on Friday they had advanced into the southern outskirts of the capital Tripoli in a dangerous thrust against the internationally recognized government.

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Fighting was going on near the former international airport, which Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) force controlled by nightfall, an LNA spokesman and residents said.

The move by the LNA, which is allied to a parallel administration based in the east, escalated a power struggle that has splintered the nation since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

It came as U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres departed after meeting Haftar to try to avert civil war.

“I leave Libya with a heavy heart and deeply concerned. I still hope it is possible to avoid a bloody confrontation in and around Tripoli,” he said on Twitter.

The U.N. Security Council was briefed behind closed doors on the latest developments on Friday and expressed deep concern in a statement read after the meeting by German U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, president of the council for April.

“They (the council) called on LNA forces to halt all military movements. They also called on all forces to de-escalate and halt military activity. There can be no military solution to the conflict,” Heusgen said.

Haftar, 75, who casts himself as an opponent of Islamist extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new Gaddafi, was quoted by Al-Arabiya TV as telling Guterres the operation would continue until terrorism was defeated.

The coastal capital Tripoli is the ultimate prize for Haftar’s eastern parallel government.

In 2014, he assembled former Gaddafi soldiers and in a three-year battle seized the main eastern city of Benghazi.

This year, he took the south with its oilfields.

As well as visiting Haftar in Benghazi, Guterres had been in Tripoli this week to help organize a national reconciliation conference planned for later this month.

But that plan looked in jeopardy on Thursday as LNA forces took Gharyan, about 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital after skirmishes with forces allied to Tripoli-based, U.N.-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj.

From there, Haftar’s forces moved north, first taking the village of Suq al-Khamis, about 40 km (25 miles) from Tripoli, after some fighting, a resident and an eastern military source said.

Then on Friday, the LNA said it took the areas of Qasr ben Ghashir and Wadi al-Rabie on the southern outskirts of the capital, seizing the former Tripoli International Airport, which has been abandoned since a 2014 battle,REUTERS.

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