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Fighting in Tripoli leaves dozens dead as 6,000 people flee the capital

Troops loyal to the Tripoli government and Khalifa Haftar's LNA forces have been fighting for nearly a week after eastern commander moved on capital
Forces loyal to the UN-backed government battle with Haftar troops south of Tripoli (AFP)

Nearly a week of fighting between eastern Libyan forces and troops loyal to the Tripoli government has left 56 people dead and 266 wounded in the capital, the United Nations has said.

'[There is] still time for a ceasefire to take place... to avoid the worst, which would be a dramatic, bloody battle for Tripoli'

UN chief Antonio Guterres

The latest tally of casualties from the UN's World Health Organisation (WHO) were mainly fighters, though some civilians, including two doctors and an ambulance driver, were among the dead.

The number of people forced out of their homes doubled in the last 48 hours to 6,000, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said.

"Thousands of people have fled their homes, while others are trapped in conflict areas," the WHO said. "Hospitals inside and outside [Tripoli] are receiving daily casualties." 

After sweeping up from the south, the Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of eastern commander Khalifa Haftar were reported to be holding positions in suburbs about 11km south of the city centre on Thursday morning.

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Overnight, a Reuters reporter in central Tripoli heard gunfire and explosions as the LNA faced off with the forces of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj's government around the former international airport and the Ain Zara district.

Haftar's push for Tripoli is the latest in a cycle of violence and chaos in Libya since the 2011 overthrow of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

The LNA forces moved out of their stronghold in eastern Libya to take the sparsely-populated but oil-rich south earlier this year, before heading a week ago towards Tripoli.

Tripoli resident Jamal Mahmoud told Middle East Eye earlier this week that he didn't even want to imagine the city falling into the hands of Haftar.

"We’ve already lost so much. So many of our youth gave their lives to get rid of a tyrannical leader, and their lives were not lost just for another dictator to take Gaddafi's place," he said, referring to Gaddafi.

Italy and France bicker over response

In Rome, Libya's former colonial ruler Italy warned France, which has close ties to Haftar, to refrain from supporting any faction after diplomats said Paris had blocked a European Union statement calling on him to halt his offensive.

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"It would be very serious if France, for economic or commercial reasons, had blocked an EU initiative to bring peace to Libya and would support a party that is combatting," Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini told Radio RTL 102.5.

"As minister of the interior, I will not stand by and watch."

France, which has oil assets in eastern Libya, has provided military assistance in past years to Haftar in his eastern stronghold.

It was also a leading player in the war to unseat Gaddafi.

Italy, meanwhile, supports the UN-backed government of Serraj.

EU statement blocked by France

Salvini said France had recently withdrawn its ambassador from Rome "for much less" after leaders of his League party's coalition partners, the 5-Star Movement, had met with French "yellow vest" protesters.

"Some think that the [2011 Nato-led military intervention] in Libya promoted by [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy was triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns," he said.

"I hope we are not seeing the same film all over again."

An EU draft statement on Wednesday said Haftar's attack on Tripoli put civilians at risk, disrupted the political process, and risked an escalation with serious consequences for Libya and the wider region. The statement was blocked by France.

French diplomatic sources said on Thursday that Paris did not object to calls on Haftar to stop his advance, but had only requested amendments, including mentions of migrants' plight and the presence among anti-Haftar fighters of militants designated as terrorists by the UN.

'It's still time to stop'

UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday that Libya was facing a "very dangerous situation" and urged a halt to the fighting to allow political negotiations to start anew.

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"It is very clear for me that we need to restart a serious political dialogue and a serious political negotiation but it is obvious that cannot take place without a full stop to the hostilities," he said.

"It's still time to stop," Guterres told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council in a closed session in New York.

"It's still time for a ceasefire to take place, for a cessation of hostilities to take place, and to avoid the worst, which would be a dramatic, bloody battle for Tripoli."

The council met for more than two hours to consider how to address the fresh fighting that has derailed efforts to end instability that has been exploited by armed groups and people-smugglers.

Libya is a main transit point for refugees who have entered Europe in recent years, organised by the illegal trafficking gangs.

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